Profile /Nick Lane

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Dr Nick Lane is a biochemist and writer.  He was awarded the first "Provost's Venture Research Fellowship" in the department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment where he is now a Senior Lecturer.  Nick's research deals with evolutionary biochemistry and bioenergetics, focusing on the origin of life and the evolution of complex cells.  He is the author of three acclaimed books on evolutionary biochemistry, which have sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide and have been translated into 20 languages.
Nick's next book, due to be published in 2014 is provisionally titled CHASM: the outlandish origins of complex life.  It will attack a central problem in biology - why did complex life arise only once in four billion years, and why does all complex life share so many peculiar properties, from sex and speciation to senescence?

  oxygen-coverf   sex-cover   life-ascending167  

 Oxygen:  The Molecule that Made the World
a sweeping history of the relationship between life and our planet and the paradoxical ways in which adaptations to oxygen play out in our own lives and deaths.  It was selected as one of the Sunday Times Books of the Year for 2002

Power, Sex, Suicide:  Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life
An exploration of the extraordinary effects that mitochondria have had on the evolution of complex life.  It was selected as one of the Economist's books of the year for 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Royal Society Aventis Science Book Prize

Life Ascending:  The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
A celebration of the inventiveness of life and of our own ability to read the deep past to reconstruct the history of life on earth.  It won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books and was named book of the year by New Scientist among others.

The Origin of Life /present research

funded by Leverhulme Trust

 The Origin of Life is one of the most exciting unanswered questions in science.  The discovery of Lost City, an alkaline hydrothermal vent system off the mid-Atlantic ridge, gives striking insights into how life might have started on Earth.  This project sets out to test some of the possible chemistry and self-organisation that might have arisen in such vent systems four billion years ago, using an origin-of-life reactor that simulates their key properties in the lab.

Alkaline vents are natural electrochemical reactors.  Four billion years ago their wall would have been composed of minerals, including catalytic iron, nickel and molybdenum sulfides.  The fluids entering were warm (70-90 degrees centigrade), rich in hydrogen, and strongly alkaline (PH 11), whereas the oceans were cool and rich in carbon dioxide making them mildly acidic (PH 5 - 6).  This means that alkaline vents were riddled with thermal gradients that can concentrate organic molecules; with proton (PH) gradients over mineral walls, and with electrical differences between electron donors (mostly hydrogen) and acceptors (mostly carbon dioxide).

What is remarkable and exciting about these vents is that they offer simple geochemical equivalents to the biological processes still operating in bacteria living there today.  These cells gain both energy and organic carbon from the reaction of hydrogen and carbon dioxide.  The enzymes responsible contain clusters of iron, nickel and molybdenum sulfide that are almost identical in structure to minerals found in vents.  Most intriguingly of all, these bacteria can only grow by using proton gradients across membranes, exactly like those found in the vents.  Recent theoretical work indicates why these properties are so important; but the theory has never been tested experimentally.

We plan to draw on these remarkable parallels to address the origin of life experimentally in a reactor.  We hope to show that the thermodynamic driving forces operating in our reactor are sufficient to form key biological molecules such as amino acids, sugars and nucleotides at the concentrations required for the self-assembly of larger structures, and ultimately, we hope, proto-cells.



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An alkaline hydrothermal vent at Lost City, courtesy of Deborah Kelley, University of Washington (scale bar = 1m).