Research Impact


Enhancing public awareness and engagement with evolutionary cell biology

12 December 2014


Through the publication of three books based on his original research, written for a non-specialist audience, and extensive public engagement, Dr Nick Lane enhanced public awareness of little known areas of science. His books have been translated into 20 languages and have sold around 100,000 copies since 2008.

Dr Nick Lane (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) examines the role of bioenergetics in cell evolution, especially the origin of life and the evolution of complex cells. These ideas, while seemingly remote in terms of deep time, have striking implications for the physiology and health of humans, which Dr Lane has brought to the fore through his research.

Three books lay out his original, testable framework for understanding the four billion year-sweep of evolution - a grand interpretation of evidence in the tradition of Darwin's Origin of Species. Through the publication of these books, written for a non-specialist audience, and through an extensive schedule of public engagement work, Dr Lane has enhanced public awareness of relatively little known areas of science - evolutionary biochemistry and cell biology.

Nick's contribution was crucial in ensuring that…complex ideas were communicated clearly while retaining full scientific rigour, and his specialist knowledge in the field ensured that our account of the subject was both approachable and authoritative. - Producer, In Our Time radio programme

Since 2008, more than 100,000 copies of these books have been sold, in 20 languages. Dr Lane's books themselves are recognised internationally as original contributions to research, and have received hundreds of academic citations. In 2002, Dr Lane published Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, an account of the strange effects of oxygen on the evolution process, particularly concepts of mortality and man's place in nature. The Sunday Times (Books of the Year, 2002) described this book as "an extraordinary orchestration of disparate scientific disciplines, connecting the origins of life on earth with disease, age and death in human beings".

This was followed, in 2005, by Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, a book which set out Dr Lane's original ideas on the role of mitochondria in the evolution of complex cells, and how this affects human health. A review in Nature described this book as "audacious… parts of it qualify as primary literature, by announcing at least two major, original and testable hypotheses". It was shortlisted for the Times Higher Education's Young Academic Author of the Year in 2005 and the Royal Society Prize for Science Books in 2006.

Then in 2009, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution was published. This covered evolution more broadly, from a biochemical point of view, and won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books in 2010.

In the years following publication of the books, Dr Lane has formally tested their hypotheses. His sweeping bioenergetic view of evolution places the interactions between genes and energy at the heart of natural selection, and postulates in testable terms why the complex eukaryotic cell arose only once in four billion years of evolution; and why all eukaryotic organisms (plants, animals, fungi, algae, etc.) share numerous counter-intuitive traits that are not seen in simpler cells such as bacteria, notably sex, two sexes, speciation and senescence. These ideas have critical implications for human health issues, including infertility and age-related diseases, forming the basis for future experimental and genetic work. A remarkable aspect of the bioenergetic focus of Dr Lane's work is that a central set of ideas provides insights on topics ranging from the origin of life to ageing and death.

Dr Lane has appeared as an expert in a number of television and radio shows, bringing the little-known world of cells and evolution to large audiences. For example, he appeared on the BBC2/Discovery documentary Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell (2012), which has been watched by about four million people worldwide and is now routinely viewed as part of A-level biology courses. He also acted as scientific adviser to the major BBC series Wonders of Life (2013), with Brian Cox. Each episode drew an audience of over 3.5 million people.

Dr Lane has appeared on many radio shows, again with audiences numbering millions. For example, he featured on the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time (on cells, 2012), with an audience of over two million in the UK, and downloads in 40 countries. This programme is an important, free learning resource which is used as a teaching aid in schools and universities in both the UK and abroad.