The chemistry that tells us how life began

The same knowledge could also help us learn more about ageing and cancer
June 16, 2022
Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death
Nick Lane
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Biochemist Nick Lane is one of our boldest thinkers and a key researcher into the origin and deep history of life. Following the DNA revolution, which started in 1953 with James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA’s structure, biochemistry became somewhat sidelined. So much so that, when the origin of life was considered, the question of how DNA and the genetic code evolved crowded it out.

But DNA could not have been involved in the origin of life; it can do nothing without protein enzymes, and proteins can only be made from the DNA code. Then when it was discovered that DNA’s close relative RNA can, amazingly, catalyse its own replication, the idea of a primordial “RNA world” became fashionable. 

But Lane, by contrast, insists that life had to begin with the kind of metabolic reactions that we know power it today. Life needs a constant source of energy; the most likely primordial source was located in effluents from deep-sea hydrothermal vents, containing iron-sulphur clusters that lie at the heart of many key biological molecules. Our detailed knowledge of the chemistry of life now allows Lane’s lab at UCL to conduct experiments that mimic those primordial conditions in hydrothermal vents, making his theory of the origin of life—which also has implications for ageing and diseases such as cancer—the most plausible version that we have. 

In Transformer, Lane develops the story from his acclaimed 2015 book The Vital Question to explain the remarkably flexible cycles of reactions that have powered life since its inception. Establishing the origin of life and its subsequent history is a grand human endeavour with major real-world consequences. While Elon Musk wants to colonise Mars, Bill Gates is backing Nick Lane.