Synopses & Reviews
The origin of life is a hotly debated topic. The Christian Bible states that God created the heavens and the Earth, all in about seven days roughly six thousand years ago. This episode in Genesis departs markedly from scientific theories developed over the last two centuries which hold that life appeared on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago in the form of bacteria, followed by unicellular organisms half a millennia later. It is this version of genesis that Alexandre Meinesz explores in this engaging tale of life's origins and evolution.and#160;
How Life Began elucidates three origins, or geneses, of lifeand#8212;bacteria, nucleated cells, and multicellular organismsand#8212;and shows how evolution has sculpted life to its current biodiversity through four main eventsand#8212;mutation, recombination, natural selection, and geologic cataclysm.and#160;As an ecologist who specializes in algae, the first organisms to colonize Earth, Meinesz brings a refreshingly novel voice to the history of biodiversity and emphasizes here the role of unions in organizing life. For example, the ingestion of some bacteria by other bacteria led to mitochondria that characterize animal and plant cells, and the chloroplasts of plant cells.and#160;As Meinesz charmingly recounts, lifeand#8217;s grandeur is a result of an evolutionary tendency toward sociality and solidarity. He suggests that it is our cohesion and collaboration that allows us to solve the environmental problems arising in the decades and centuries to come. Rooted in the science of evolution but enlivened with many illustrations from other disciplines and the arts, How Life Beganand#160;intertwines the rise of bacteria and multicellular life with Vermeerand#8217;s portrait of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the story of Genesis and Noah, Meineszand#8217;s sonand#8217;s early experiences with Legos, and his own encounters with other scientists. All of this brings a very human and humanistic tone to Meineszand#8217;s charismatic narrative of the three origins of life.and#160;
"A French marine biologist best known for his work with Mediterranean ecosystems gone awry (documented in his 1999 Killer Algae
), Meinesz brings his vast knowledge of molecular biology to bear on the question, 'What is Life?' He comes up with some startling, if speculative, answers. Despite many advances in genetics and other sciences, Meinesz asserts there is no empirical evidence of a life-generating 'molecular soup' (and he that doubts any will be forthcoming), but evidence does exist to support the theory that the 'seeds of life' came to earth on a meteor. Using the latest scientific data, Meinesz covers the sweep of evolution, paying particular attention to bacteria and unicellular organisms. He locates the engine for evolution in a system of 'endosymbiosis,' illustrated in a chapter on the symbiotic relationship between tropical 'vampire' sea slugs and the 'killer' algae. Meinesz doesnand#8217;t deny the role disaster and luck play in the survival of life forms over billions of years, and he doesnand#8217;t believe that the 'increasing complexity' of evolution is a givenand#8212;rather, the 'grandeur of life' is a ceaseless evolution that stretches in more directions than one. Writing with charm and an eye toward the general audience, Meineszand#8217;s lively guide to evolution is compelling, up-to-the-minute popular science at its best."
"What distinguishes this book from other recent studies...is the integrative and humanistic approach in which Johannes Vermeer's painting of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (the discoverer of microbes) and contemporary cartoons depicting cells eating cells (the origins of cellular organelles) are integrated with genetics, natural selection, geological cataclysms, and speculations on the extraterrestrial origins of life (panspermia) to portray how unicellular organisms arose 3.5 billion years ago, gave rise to unicellular organisms 2.5 billions years ago, and came to dominate current biodiversity on the planet. The writing is engaging, the style accessible, and the messages clear...Highly recommended."
2009 Choice Outstanding Academic Title
"Meinesz brings a refreshingly novel voice to the history of biodiversity and emphasizes here the role of unions in organizing life. . . . [A] charismatic narrative of the three origins of life."
and#8220;This book is a rare pleasure: a beautiful, rational, wise, and eloquent framing of lifeand#8217;s greatest mysteries, what remains to be known, and how we might get there. It should be read by anyone who wonders, seriously, how we came to be. If it does not provide all the answers, that is because we honestly do not know.and#8221;
and#8220;When dealing with difficult questions such as the origin of life, one yearns for writing that is both sagacious and readable, two qualities that donand#8217;t always go together. Fortunately, we can forego the need for making a choice. Haroldand#8217;s book provides an account that is both masterful in the pursuit of the very question and in the clarity with which he unravels relevant phenomena. I daresay that few more helpful guides to a complex terrain have come forth since Danteand#8217;s Beatrice.and#8221;
and#8220;The origin of life is one of the great enigmas yet to yield to modern science. While there are other books that attempt to place their own spin on how life came about, In Search of Cell History stands alone in that it is written not by one of those advocating a particular viewpoint but instead by one who tries to remain a detached, albeit extremely well informed, observer of events. An excellent piece of scholarly work by a suitably unbiased and appropriately skeptical researcher.and#8221;
and#8220;Wonderful. . . . A loving distillation of connections within the incredible diversity of life in the biosphere, framing one of biologyand#8217;s most important remaining questions: how did life begin? . . . Using [a] deceptively casual approach, Harold cleans up the vast untidy mess of biology and stacks the fundamental concepts in an orderly and creative way for readers to enjoy. . . . Haroldand#8217;s book is like a balloon that will let [young scientists] rise above the trees for a while and look down to better understand the scope and shape of the forestand#8212;and perhaps then descend to pluck some low-hanging fruit. Senior scientists like myself will take pleasure in comparing perspectives with Haroldand#8217;s. This is, after all, a story to conjure withand#8212;that of how life began and evolved into eukaryotic cells, a hundred trillion of which compose the human body. No one can yet tell this story in its entirety, but Haroldand#8217;s book is a good place to start.and#8221;
andldquo;The big questions in evolution are the ones that grab our imagination: How did life begin? Where do cells come from? How did eukaryotes come to be? How does life become organized? How does it become complex, and what is biological complexity in the first place? How does energy figure into cell evolution? Where did the genetic code come from? Those are the kinds of questions that Franklin Harold, a grand master of cellular workings and bioenergetics, has packed into his latest book. . . . Sound interesting? It is. The book is a must for those interested in microbial evolution, lifeandrsquo;s origin, or both. . . . Coming into the final chapter, the reader gets a strong sense that judgment day and the unabated Wrath of God are lurking just around the corner, to be delivered ablaze with lightning bolts from above. There is chilling suspense that Harold is finally going to part the waters and thunder forth what he really thinks about all these ideas on early evolution, namely that individually and in sum they cut neither ice nor mustard, and that we are best advised to repentantly seek our drawing board, eraser firm in hand, with renewed resolve to do better in our next sixty years of attempt. I will not divulge here how much hellfire and damnation the final verdicts hold.andrdquo;
andldquo;Within In Seach of Cell History Harold deftly discusses the definition of life, successes and problems of classification of cells, how cells get and use energy, the great divergence of cell types into three loose families, cell symbionts, and even tackles the ultimate riddle of where cells first came from. His approach is a classic scientific one, starting with what is known and provable then moving into theories of what is not known.and#160; He is clear to separate fact from speculation, not hesitating to state his own opinions as such and contrasting them point by point with others in the field. It is very refreshing to read about the forward edge of cell research without polemics of any kind. The talent of his writing is twofold, first; I felt a part of a conversation among the leading lights of cell research, and second; Harold has no problem stating what is not known. . . . This is a book that illustrates what scientific writing should be; precise, exciting, and presenting the unknown in such a way as to inspire us to want to learn more.andrdquo;
andldquo;A fine addition to the many books on how cells originated and evolved. It is well written, accessible, thorough, and illustrated with helpful figures, focusing on cellular organization and how that organization diversified as various life-forms evolved.and#160;Harold comprehensively discusses the important process of fusion between cells (symbiosis) in cell evolution as well as information on cellular structure and organization that can be gleaned from the fossil record. . . . Highly recommended.andrdquo;
andldquo;In Search of Cell History offers an ambitious, one-stop overview of early cell evolution that covers all major theories related to the origin of life, the early evolution and diversification of cells, and the emergence of eukaryotic cells with their structural novelties, such as nuclei, mitochondria, and plastids. . . . The bottom line: I really admire this book and expect to refer to it frequently in the future. . . . Harold does a marvelous job of reviewing and summarizing an unwieldy mass of literature on the origin and early diversification of life and providing some opinions about which theories and lines of research seem promising.andrdquo;
andldquo;A must-have. . . . In Search of Cell History is a wise and useful summary of the issues facing origins research. Importantly, it refocuses the origin problem onto the cell in toto, as a unit of living matter; it represents a solid foundation for origins research where chemists have begun only very recently to make significant advances in understand the crowding and structuring of biomacromolecules in living cells. There is no need to throw in the towel yet.andrdquo;
The origin of cells remains one of the most fundamental problems in biology, one that over the past two decades has spawned a large body of research and debate. With In Search of Cell History
, Franklin M. Harold offers a comprehensive, impartial take on that research and the controversies that keep the field in turmoil.
Written in accessible language and complemented by a glossary for easy reference, this book investigates the full scope of cellular history. Assuming only a basic knowledge of cell biology, Harold examines such pivotal subjects as the relationship between cells and genes; the central role of bioenergetics in the origin of life; the status of the universal tree of life with its three stems and viral outliers; and the controversies surrounding the last universal common ancestor. He also delves deeply into the evolution of cellular organization, the origin of complex cells, and the incorporation of symbiotic organelles, and considers the fossil evidence for the earliest life on earth. In Search of Cell History shows us just how far we have come in understanding cell evolutionand#151;and the evolution of life in generaland#151;and how far we still have to go.
Cell origin remains one of the most fundamental problems in biology, and over the last decade it has spawned a large body of literature and debate. Franklin Harold has synthesized this literature not to promote his own views of cell origin but to impartially present the current research on the topic along with the controversies that keep the field in turmoil. In accessible language that assumes only a basic knowledge of cell biology, he shows how far weand#8217;ve come in understanding cell evolutionand#151;and the origins of life in generaland#151;and how far we have to go before we can completely comprehend it. After introducing cell theory, Harold explores such wide-ranging topics as the construction of a universal tree of life; controversies over the Last Universal Common Ancestorand#8217;s exact nature and place in cell history; the evolution of cellular organization; and the origin and evolution of complex cells. The final chapters of the book explore the early origins of life and the evolutionary implications of cellular evolution.
About the Author
Franklin M. Harold was born in Germany, grew up in the Middle East, and became a scientist at the City College of New York and the University of California, Berkeley. His professional career spans forty years of research and teaching, mostly in Colorado. He is professor emeritus of biochemistry at Colorado State University and affiliate professor of microbiology at the University of Washington. Harold's interests include the physiology, energetics, and morphogenesis of microorganisms, with a continuing interest in evolution. He is a member of the American Academy of Microbiology. Harold is also the author of The Vital Force: A Study of Bioenergetics and The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Cells, Genes, and Evolution
(On the Nature and Workings of Life)
Chapter 2: The Tree of Life
(Universal Phylogeny and Its Discontents)
Chapter 3: A World Mostly Made Up of Microbes
(Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya)
Chapter 4: The Deep Roots of Cellular Life
(The Common Ancestry of Living Things)
Chapter 5: The Perplexing Chronicles of Bioenergetics
(Making a Living, Now and in the Past)
Chapter 6: Lifeand#8217;s Devices
(On the Evolution of Prokaryotic Cells and Their Parts)
Chapter 7: Emergence of the Eukaryotes
(The Second Mystery in Cell Evolution)
Chapter 8: Symbionts into Organelles
(Mitochondria, Plastids, and Their Kin)
Chapter 9: Reading the Rocks
(What We Can Infer from Geology)
Chapter 10: Ultimate Riddle
(Origin of Cellular Life)
Chapter 11: The Crooked Paths of Cell Evolution
(Cell Evolution Is Special)
Chapter 12: Summing Up: Journey without Maps