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Oxygen: the Molecule that made the World by Nick Lane

Free Radical Research, March 2003

Professor Barry Halliwell, Department of Biochemistry, National University of Singapore

This book is about life, death and oxygen. It is written (very well indeed) for both the lay reader and scientists, and is full of amusing anecdotes. Thus oxygen may well not have been discovered by Lavoisier, Scheele and Priestley as commonly supposed, but in 1604. Indeed, in 1621 oxygen may have been bottled and used to "refresh the air" on the world's first submarine. Linus Pauling recommended that you trust the biochemistry of a goat more than the advice of a physician. In 1942, the world's first hyperbaric chamber was dis- mantled for scrap and aided the American war effort. Some stories are less amusing, such as that girls painting the faces of luminescent watches were told that radium would put a glow in their cheeks and give them a smile that would glow in the dark, that in terms of free radical production breathing for a year may be 105 times more dangerous that a chest X-ray, that if it were not for melanin and haemoglobin we would change colour when we exercised, that some of the Salem witches burnt at the stake were sufferers from Huntington's disease (a defective gene which may, paradoxically, favour increased fecundity early in life), and that type 2 diabetes is a "forlorn attempt to survive by delaying reproduction".

The author argues that pharmacogenomics is misguided, that we should envy birds not only for their power of flight but also for their "sealed" inner mitochondrial membranes, that the dominant position of predators in modern ecosystems is a consequence of the availability of O2, that fires do not really regulate atmospheric O2 levels, that photorespiration does and also protects against O2 toxicity, that scorpions a metre long scurried about in the Carboniferous period, that mitochondrial DNA is sometimes altruistic, that telomeres are a characte- ristic biological fudge, that reactive chlorophyll in photosynthesis is analogous to a dragon that must be fed with virgins to stop it ravaging the neighbour- hood, that haploid males are "defect sieves", and that the O2-evolving complex of photosynthesis evolved in an anoxic world, yet one stressed by H2O2 generated by recombination of OH· radicals generated photochemically in rainwater. In other words, oxidative stress predated oxygen production by photosynthesis and allowed the evolution of that process, and even more paradoxically, aerobic respiration evolved before O2 became abundant.

Equally enthralling is the author's discussion of ageing. John Brinkley almost became governor of Kansas in 1930 because of his "success" in transplanting sliced goat testicles (each paying patient could select the goat of his preference). My own attempts to organise ageing conferences indicate that some physicians have not moved much further forward.

An excellent book. It held me spellbound for a 7 h plane flight. I recommend it unreservedly.

 

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