An interview with Professor Nick Lane, an evolutionary biochemist and award-winning writer

On how energy flow has shaped life on Earth and how writing books has shaped his research

Writer: Sophie Maho Chan
Editor: Skyla Siu
Artist: Olivia Kehoe

Professor Nick Lane is an evolutionary biochemist at the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at UCL. In addition to being the co-founder of UCL Consortium for Mitochondrial Research and co-director of the UCL Centre for Life’s Origin and Evolution, he is an author of four acclaimed books. This includes Life Ascending, which won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. 

“I think it’s really helpful for writers to keep a foot in science and I think it’s really helpful for scientists to keep a foot in writing. The two go hand-in-hand.”

Energy flow and evolution is the common theme running through Prof Lane’s research. He points out that the history of life on Earth is “very weird” and cannot be fully explained by genes alone. Specifically, prokaryotes – single-celled bacteria and archaea – arose 4 billion years ago and have stayed in their ‘simple’ form ever since. In contrast, ‘complex’ eukaryotic organisms – including everything from humans to amoeba – can all be traced back to a common ancestor that arose just once around 1.5 to 2 billion years ago. While the commonalities between animals, plants, fungi and amoebas may not be apparent at first glance, we share a surprising number of features that distinguish us from prokaryotes, including the presence of a nucleus, sex and ageing. As Prof Lane puts it, there is a “gulf of difference” between eukaryotes and prokaryotes. The question is why and how can we explain these fundamental universally shared traits.

To this, he answers energy. 

“Anybody who goes into researching evolution is bringing their training… I’m bringing my day job in because my PhD relates to bioenergetics”. While recognising that this comes with the danger of subjectivity, the fact that all life is driven by the peculiar mechanism of electrical charges across membranes reaffirms the centrality of energy to life. Drawing on mathematical modelling and biochemical experiments, Prof Lane argues that throughout evolutionary history, the energy requirement of life has placed constraints on trajectories of natural selection. By appreciating energy’s “explanatory power”, we can unpack major evolutionary transitions, from the very origins of life to why eukaryotes evolved sex and ageing.

When questioned about what sparked his unique bioenergetic perspective on evolution, Prof Lane has an unorthodox story to tell. “Well… writing books.”

After earning his PhD investigating what goes wrong with mitochondria in kidney transplants, Prof Lane went on to reconcile his long-held passion for writing by taking up medical writing jobs. He eventually found himself in a ‘creative’ medical communications agency, writing storylines to accompany video animations about how drugs work. 

“I learned a lot about writing from doing that,” he recalls. One lesson was the need to write about science as a straight narrative, which, he reflects, made him “deal with causality in a really direct way”. Another key takeaway was the importance of writing in plain English, especially in catering to a diverse audience of healthcare professionals and patients. He recounts how he had long internalised that good writing equated to complicated words and sophisticated prose. While admitting a chronic urge to still write in flowery passages, he says that he now values plain English. “Let the science do the talking, not the words.”

Prof Lane’s life came into a full circle when he embarked on a journey to write his first book, which started off being about free radical chemistry, a subject matter he took a keen interest in during his PhD. As he explains, however, the book “took a life on its own”. Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, explores not only the medical implications of oxygen but also its geological origins and how it influenced evolution, from the origins of animals to why we age. He describes the fun in learning about something completely outside of his comfort zone and how it broadened his view to look at big evolutionary questions from a biochemical standpoint. Long story short, he found himself back in academia, addressing the same big questions in his books in the lab himself.

“I did it the wrong way round… well, I would even say the right way round – except that there isn’t a career structure that allows people to leave academia and come back in.”

According to Prof Lane, his writing informs his research. Given the scope to explore disparate fields and competing theories in books, he gained the confidence to have opinions on big questions, even if they are wrong. Accompanying this, he developed a sense of moral duty in conveying his work honestly. “People read and trust what you say,” he explains. “I can’t just say anything I want… [there’s] a requirement to be honest about other people’s work even if it contradicts yours and guiding people where you are going and why… which is actually a really valuable training as a scientist.”

When asked about what it means to communicate his work, he says, “It’s a thrill”. From where he sees it, most people are inherently interested in big questions about life and therefore willing to go to great lengths to understand complex science, given sufficient confidence that what they are reading is worth reading. This is why he tries to incorporate contexts, histories and humour to inject some “humanity” into his writing. While he recognises that most people may think his books are demanding, he emphasises trying to capture the threshold of minimal explanation for the maximum effect. 

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