Power, Sex, Suicide (Nick Lane)

By Annika Dokter

Power, Sex and Suicide: three words that grasp attention like little else would. It is not what you think; the subtitle reveals that this book is actually about the elusive mitochondria – to many a mystery. This combination describes exactly what Nick Lane’s book encompasses: rather complex biological concepts, but accessible for anyone interested.

Lane combines and contrasts theories about the last universal common ancestor, the origin of life and the foundation of complex life in the universe. He poses many questions that I have had myself – but additionally, he poses many questions that I would have wanted to have, but never had. Questions such as if our origin, the eukaryotic cell, was a result of an unlikely set of circumstances, or rather an inevitable event. Or why the presence of mitochondria lead to sex evolving in the way that it did, why we are warm blooded, why some birds can live longer than us and if we would ever be able to mimic this. Lane has an impressive amount of knowledge on genetics and biochemistry, as well as population, cell, evolutionary and molecular biology. This allows him to portray different theories from various angles and to compare them.

Illustration by Yvonne Kuijt

He poses many questions that I would have wanted to have, but never had.

Lane’s book is packed with cutting edge research and delves into the bigger questions of how we came about, how we reproduce and how we age, but is still easy to read for most in the field of life sciences. Lane is not scared of putting forward controversial theories, nor his own opinion. Especially where research is still lacking, he speculates freely what could be. These theories should be approached with caution, but are often eye-opening, since school books generally contain only theories that are extensively supported.

It might seem daunting to read an entire book on a single organelle, with all its redox reactions that so many of us dread – but with Lane’s light-hearted enthusiasm, ‘Power, Sex, Suicide’ becomes as easy and exciting to read as any story.

How can I find this book?

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, written by Nick Lane is published by Oxford University Press.

About the writer

Annika Dokter is a Biomedical Sciences MSc student at the VU, specializing in infectious disease and immunology.

The mitochondria illustration was made especially for this article by Yvonne Kuijt. Want to see more of her work? Visit her Instagram: yviekuijt.