For decades, biology has been dominated by information – the power of genes. Yet there is no difference in information content between a living cell and one that died a moment ago. A better question goes back to the formative years of biology: what processes animate cells and set them apart from lifeless matter?
In Transformer, Nick Lane turns the standard view upside down, capturing an extraordinary scientific renaissance that is hiding in plain sight. At its core is an amazing cycle of reactions that uses energy to transform inorganic molecules into the building blocks of life – and the reverse. To understand this cycle is to fathom the deep coherence of the living world. It connects the origin of life with the devastation of cancer, the first photosynthetic bacteria with our own mitochondria, sulfurous sludges with the emergence of consciousness, and the trivial differences between ourselves with the large-scale history of our planet.
Nick Lane is a biochemist and writer. He is Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London, and the author of Life Ascending, which won the 2010 Royal Society Prize, and The Vital Question, of which Bill Gates wrote 'this biology book blew me away'.
"One of the most creative of today's biologists [...] this is a book filled with big ideas, many of which are bold instances of lateral thinking"
– New Scientist
"In this compulsively readable book, Lane takes us on a riveting journey, ranging from the flow of energy to new ways of understanding cancer. Lane provides a luminous understanding of how scientists, including Lane himself, are rethinking energy and living organisms."
– Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies and The Gene: An Intimate History
"Nick Lane's exploration of the building blocks that underlie life's big fundamental questions – the origin of life itself, aging, and disease – have shaped my thinking since I first came across his work. He is one of my favourite science writers"
– Bill Gates
"Hugely important [...] a powerfully persuasive case for life being about energy flow, flux and change. In Transformer, chemistry is quite literally brought to life"
– Jim Al-Khalili, author of The World According To Physics
"Amazing! Takes science writing to a new level [...] with soaring prose but uncompromising on scientific detail, Transformer made me think about life on earth in a completely different way."
– Daniel M. Davis, author of The Secret Body
"Hugely ambitious and tremendously exciting [...] Transformer shows how a molecular dance from the dawn of time still sculpts our lives today. I read with rapt attention."
– Olivia Judson, evolutionary biologist and author
"A thrilling and highly persuasive account of what makes life and how the miracle started, coaxed not by genes but a remarkable cycle of energy and matter – a chemical cycle able to conjure the material of life from the elements of a rocky blue planet. This hugely important book is set to become a landmark, transforming our understanding of how life works. Lane's infectious enthusiasm had me gripped on a tour down the aeons and deep into the inner workings of our cells, to discover the chemistry that gives me the sentience for such fundamental self-knowledge. Marvellous"
– Gaia Vince, author of Nomad Century and Adventures in the Anthropocene
"Nobody explains the inner secrets of the living cell better than Nick Lane. He clarifies the complexities of the chemistry that drives all life in a most engaging way. The stories of how this hidden world was revealed by remarkable scientists is explored as a series of riveting detective stories, leaving the reader with admiration for the ingenuity and sheer persistence of those who unscrambled the reactions that underlie all life."
– Richard Fortey FRS FRSL author of Fossils: The Key to the Past
"An exhilarating account of the biophysics of life, stretching from the first stirrings of living matter to the psychology of consciousness. I felt as if I was there, every step of the way"
– Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness
"Nick Lane never writes about the living world without offering entirely new perspectives on how life itself works. Transformer is no exception. His subject here – the Krebs cycle – is often seen as one of the driest staples of biochemical textbooks. But in Lane's hands, it becomes a key to life's origins and driving forces, to health, disease and ageing, and even to our awareness of the world. Biochemistry has never looked more exciting."
– Phillip Ball