Undoubtedly, Power, Sex, Suicide is a book with a very punchy and eye-catching title. The title summarizes the critical message the author Nick Lane wants to convey: mitochondria are way more than just the powerhouse of the cell.
Currently a professor of Evolution Biochemistry at University College London, Lane has dedicated his career to mitochondrial and evolution research. In this book, he lays out his knowledge of mitochondria—impressively extensive, in a light-hearted tone. Going in prepared to have a hard 500-page-grind, I was pleasantly surprised at how story-like Lane presented the information and concepts. Lane walks us through the basics of mitochondria biology and functions, then outlines the current debates in mitochondrial research – their critical roles in eukaryotic cell evolution, the development of sex, and the mechanisms behind aging.
I found the section on aging most exciting and thought-provoking. Lane goes through front-running theories of mitochondria-induced aging from different schools of thought. By comparing relatively long-lived birds to relatively short-lived humans, Lane leads the audience in discussing why humans age and age faster. Lane touches upon the very popular and advertised anti-aging class of products, antioxidants, which claim to target oxidative products of mitochondria, as oxidative stress has been shown to be related to mitochondria-mediated aging. Lane argues that simply targeting mitochondrial products is an unviable and, in fact, dangerous solution to counter aging, as these molecules are integral in normal cell signalling and development. He also discusses a new perspective in understanding aging: long-lived birds have a relatively higher energy “spare capacity” for strenuous activities like flying. He proposes that perhaps the “cure of aging” lies within increased mitochondrial numbers and the mitochondrial ability to regulate oxidative products. This was undoubtedly a brand-new route to be considered in tackling aging issues.
Lane also proposes that mitochondria drive the establishment and derivation of sex – specifically, the existence of only two, but not more or less, biological sexes. I am, on the other hand, more dubious about this section of the book. As mutations and damages naturally occur in nuclear DNA, cells may become less fit for survival when mutations accumulate. Lane argues that “selfish” mitochondria drive their less fit cell “host” into fusing with another cell to strive for a better chance for survival. Through this process, two cells fuse and recombine to produce a healthier set of nuclear DNA. However, this may also lead to incompatibility between mitochondria from different cell sources. To avoid this conflict, it is more practical to consistently include mitochondria from only one source or parent, ultimately giving rise to the existence of two sexes – one being mitochondria-contributing and one not. Despite these assertions, I don’t find this argument convincing and believe more questions must be answered. For instance, since mitochondria evidently possess their own DNA, as they undergo uniparental inheritance, the chances of correcting mitochondrial mutations or creating genetic variation seem limited. How do cells correct these accumulating mutation burdens or enable mitochondria to adapt to changing external factors? In addition, it is puzzling why eukaryotic cells did not evolve to allow for mitochondrial DNA recombination, which would generate only one type of mitochondria, thereby minimizing the compatibility risks, similar to inheritance from only one parent.
Although Lane tailors the content of the book to a vast, non-scientific background audience, readers without a biology background might find it challenging to get through the minutiae of the book. I appreciate that Lane not only presents the theories he believes in but also contradicting views, unravelling the history of discovery and key experiments. He often delivers thought-provoking questions to transition into different topics or discuss un-deciphered mysteries in a particular area. This type of narration provides the audience with not just dense facts, but also creates a fun story by taking the audience through the journey that the biology field took to unlock the hidden secrets of mitochondria. This book is worth a read for anyone interested in mitochondria and evolution.
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