Power, Sex and Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life – Nick Lane
If you’ve ever wondered why complex, multicellular organisms exist, or how we managed to evolve from small bacteria, the answer is surprising but simple: mitochondria. From the moment this energy ‘powerhouse’ entered a cell, its destiny changed forever, and brought changes that would allow life to be as complex and sophisticated as it could be.
Lane takes us through a journey, from the first ‘cells’: bubbles of water with membranes made of metals; to how bacteria formed and changed to give rise to the cell that would become the first eukaryote.
It exposes the fundamental effect mitochondria have in our lives, which most of us would be unaware of before reading this book. Mitochondria not only allowed us to become multicellular, but also gave us energy for being alive, heat to become warm-blooded animals, caused us to have sex and even die.
The mechanism by which mitochondria provide us with energy, although complex, was well explained. It starts when electrons in the food travel through respiration complexes and membranes which accumulate protons. These are then released and the energy they give out is used to create ATP, which is stable enough to travel to where it is needed and once there breaks down and releases energy for all the processes that keep us alive.
Sex, a very important process for the survival of our species, was actually started by mitochondria, specifically those who became trapped in cells which couldn’t divide. Because the mitochondria still wanted to survive and keep dividing, they made the cell they inhabited fuse with another cell, so they had a new opportunity to keep living, whilst the damaged cell was ’cured’ and able to divide again.
This same process eventually became the process that causes our death, in two ways, both having to do with free reactive radicals, which are formed during respiration in mitochondria. On one hand, mitochondria coordinate the process of apoptosis, or cell suicide, by releasing proteins like cytochrome oxidase c when levels of free radicals are high inside the mitochondria. This is useful to eliminate damaged cells that would otherise spread and cause tissues and organs to stop working as efficiently. On the other, it’s the release of these radicals which ultimately cause the ageing and subsequent death of the whole organism.
Power, Sex and Suicide is a revealing book, full of surprises, which will educate the readers of the importance of those tiny organelles, the mitochondria. In a world where genes seem like the most important component of life, this book will fight for the place mitochondria deserve in people’s minds, since even though they are very small and seem to just provide energy, are actually the whole reason we exist.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
A touching story of a woman and her cells, this novel narrates the life of a black woman, Henrietta Lacks, whose cancerous cells are now known by most scientists as HeLa cells, but whose family didn’t know about them or their uses until decades after they became popular. Skloot tells the reader the story about how the Lacks family reacted to the famous cells and how they dealt with their dead mother still being ‘alive’ and helping the world in so many ways.
But this is a science blog, so let’s concentrate on the science aspects of the book. The main topic debated in the book is that of tissue ownership. In Henrietta’s case, the cells were extracted without the patient’s knowledge, which after years and many scandals has been modified so the person has to sign standard forms for it to be possible. Skloot guides us through cases in which a person’s rights were violated, at least to today’s standards, if they were either used in dangerous human trials cells or had unique cells that could prove useful for research, and how the doctor and the patient can battle over who deserves the right to make money out of the cells. This field is currently plagued with the greediness of the big pharmacological businesses, which patent as many drugs and cells and genes as possible, so that if a scientist wants to research those, the costs are extremely high, which can obviously reduce scientific discoveries.
There is also a short history lesson on all the contributions HeLa cells have made during the 60 years they have been available. They were the first cells to be grown in a culture, and there are the most widespread cell lineage used for research in the world, and surprisingly, there are so many of them that you could completely cover planet Earth with them three times. HeLa cells aided the discovery of the polio vaccine, were the first to travel to space and their help in cancer research has been inestimable.
But they are not perfect at all. Their outstanding strength, which was the key to their ability to grow in cultures, is also a problem nowadays, since they can go airborne and contaminate other cell cultures.
The novel is definitely worth reading, as it informs the reader on the hot topics of today’s bioethics, but also gives an interesting story on a family and their unique experience.
The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson
How would you react if you saw a picture of a face blown apart? Would you feel scared, with tingles going down your spine, or would you just feel curious? If your answer is the latest, congratulations, you’re a psychopath. Never go near a mental hospital or they’ll imprison you forever.
Although this statement does sound like a bit of an exaggeration, it is not that far from the truth. Since there is no cure or successful treatment for psychopath, psychiatric hospitals can legally maintain a psychopath interned there for an indefinite amount of time.
These and more interesting facts can be found in Jon Ronson’s ‘The Psychopath Test’, which basically explores the madness industry, from the hospitals to the pharmaceutical companies, and on the way meeting famous psychologists and psychopaths alike in an autobiographical manner.
The book gets its name from a checklist designed by Robert D. Hare, which contains a set of questions to be asked to a patient. If said patient scores above a 30 out of 40, he is considered a psychopath. Some of the qualities identified by the checklist include a grand sense of self-worth, a tendency to get bored, and lack of guilt and behaviour problems at an early age.
However, an issue explored in the book is how people can sometimes become too single minded and not consider a person’s overall character. Because everyone is a bit impulsive, or irresponsible, and that doesn’t mean they are psychopaths. In fact, only less than 1% of the human population is a psychopath, due to an abnormal amygdale. It also talks about over diagnosing, for example, in the case of child bipolar disorder, were every year more and more kids are being diagnosed with this condition many people argue doesn’t actually exist; it’s just children being children. This is where the big corporations come into play, creating more and more treatments for more and more diseases, both of which have questionable truth in them.
At the end, Ronson transmits that the world of madness and metal problems is indeed a confusing one, and although the years have been tough for this field, there is always hope. Even if psychology can be uncertain and mistakes are made due to the strict minded doctors, there is a change, albeit slow, in this mentality that can lead to a better future someday.
Beyond The God Particle – Leon Lederman and Cristopher Hill
It starts with an interesting history lesson on the society that led to our current situation, with the origin of the Tevatron and the LHC and the science behind them. This part, like most of the book, was engaging, and was fairly conversational, so the reader felt somewhat comfortable reading the first chapter.
However, all hell breaks loose when we are introduced with R and L muons breaking chirality, or the weak force being similar to the electromagnetic, or muon decay giving rise to almost-invisible electroneutrinos. But the authors try to explain this advanced physics concepts to the reader, with diagrams and instructions to reread the previous paragraphs if they didn’t completely understand it. Although they did a very good job and most of it is comprehensible, it is still hard to grasp all the science in the book, which could very well be due to the complicated nature of the subject.
An extensive section of this book went into explaining particle colliders, which are one of the most groundbreaking machines scientists have at their disposal. We are used to hear about the LHC in the news, but in this book Lederman and Hill actually explain how they work, from the electric field accelerating the particles to the magnetic field maintaining them in circular motion, and the many different types there are or could exist in the future, like the utopian muon collider.
My only major complaint was that at some points, it looked like they were trying to convince me of buying the Tevatron, insisting in several occasions it was not the end of it, highlighting its many contributions, and explaining to great lengths what the future had in stock for this collider. Now, this would seem fairly normal if it weren’t for the fact that there was more talk of the Tevatron than of the LHC, which discovered the particle that gave name to the book.
And I suspect that Lederman himself working on the Tevatron may have had something to do with this bias.
But of course my focus has to be on the description of the Higgs mechanism. It was well explained, and I know understand what mass actually is and how it is produced (by the switching from L to R) in all particles except photons. The part that did surprise me was how the Higgs field is also a charge donator, and particles actually ‘pull and drop’ charge from this field to satisfy the law of conservation of charge. And for those of you who think the Higgs boson is done and we need to study other particles now, Lederman and Hill pose new questions that will hauntscientists until they are answered, my favourite one being: where does the Higgs boson get its own mass?
Overall, I enjoyed reading ‘Beyond The God Particle’, and learned a lot on fields which I haven’t yet studied in proper depth, like quantum mechanics and the Standard Model, but mostly I just like the Tevatron a lot more now.
Missing Microbes: How The Overuse Of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues – Dr. Martin Blaser
My introduction to the microbe world, this book captured me immediately with its conversational tone into the life of the smallest creatures on Earth.
At first, my conclusion after reading the book was: if you don’t actually need antibiotics, they are the worst thing you can take. Of course, after some reconsidering, the reality is a bit less extreme. Antibiotics carry risks, just like any other medicine. The trouble is that most people don’t realise this, and take them without understanding the consequences.
Throughout the whole book, this is the message Dr. Martin Blaser tries to press on us, and I have to congratulate him on his efforts. I am now terribly aware of how antibiotics could be linked to most diseases we see today, such as obesity, celiac disease, autism, and cancer. He manages to link all these increasingly common conditions into having one cause: the overuse of antibiotics by our society. And although I do think his ideas might be a bit exaggerated at some points, there is certainly a lot of truth in this book. Wiping out bacteria in our system that has been living with our species for thousands of years has got to have some dire consequences.
He goes as far as to give cold, scientific facts by recounting many of the experiments he has been part of, which was enjoyable and proved his experienced and diversity in his field.
I enjoyed these extracts which had a certain autobiographical air to them, since they helped make the picture he was trying to paint more relatable and real life, rather than some situations one wouldn’t think they could live.
The example of Helicobacter Pylori was illuminating, as it taught me how bacteria are not necessarily pathogens or harmless, but can sometimes be both. H. pylori can cause stomach cancer in advanced ages, but can protect against many oesophageal complications when younger. Another bacterium which caused an impression on me was the Lactobacillus, which helps babies developed their microbiome. It fascinated me how one bacteria could end up affecting the future baby so much throughout his/her life. However, the increase in Caesarean sections is reducing the amount of Lactobacillus babies get from their mothers, which, as shown by Dr. Blaser, is yet another factor that is decreasing the immunity of younger generations.
In his solutions section, I found some ideas which we had in common such as the need for more specific antibiotics that could kill only those bacteria that pose a threat to us (pathogens) instead of those that just destroy entire bacteria populations indiscriminately.
As a proud 16 year-old who hasn’t thought he hadn’t had a single antibiotic in his life, I was disappointed when I found out farm animals from which we consume meat are fed small doses of antibiotics to increase their yield, so whenever we eat a steak we are also taking antibiotics.
Therefore, it is very hard to stop taking antibiotics, not only because of this but also because they’re way too useful, but rather we should limit their use in hospitals and try and stop their use in farms, by raising awareness of their dangers and the risks they entail.
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
A book which raised Richard Dawkins to prominence, The Selfish Gene tells the tale of evolution with the genes as protagonists. It takes the reader from the origin of life, the first replicators, to our current world and how the organisms that exist in it have been produced through millions of years of selecting those with genes that have made them survive.
In the book, he manages to stripe every altruistic act we may have seen in nature of its niceness and shows that it is actually a selfish act used only to increase the chances of the genes’ survival. It goes as far as to call genes selfish, not in a conscious way, but as a metaphor, to show how the living creature is only important to carry the genes to the next generation, and whose only purpose should be to make as many copies of its genes as possible.
Even though the book was published in 1976, the book can be described as timeless, since many of the concepts described are still true today. A fragment that particularly struck me was when the author mentioned mitochondria as having been autonomous cells, once separate from the human cells, which were then adopted through symbiosis and passed down to future generations. He then speculates that possibly other cell organelles were also once independent cells, which we now know to be true, at least in the case of chloroplasts.
It is in this book in which Dawkins proposes the ambitious idea of memes (ideas, thoughts…) as equivalents to genes in another type of evolution, that of culture. This gave rise to memetics, which is now a popular study. Although the correlation between genes and memes proved very fascinating and surprising, I do not agree with his assumption that they are the future of replicators, since I view their existence as very fragile and corruptible, too dependent on humans specifically, therefore not comparable to the immortal genes.
One of my favourite aspects of the book was its complexity. Although centered on biology and genes, it didn’t end up being expressed in terms limited to these subjects. And to aid the explanations Dawkins often used ideas from other fields of study, like chemistry or game theory.
It didn’t end up being a boring, monotone textbook either. He expertly used metaphors and scenarios which could be easily understood by even a person with no scientific background, although some concepts were indeed very advanced. He also managed to avoid the use of mathematics and instead used language, for which many readers must have been very grateful.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and was pleased to find it was actually captivating and resourceful. Dawkins sure did his research and has plenty of examples for every way a gene can be expressed, and an argument for every opinion opposite of his.