Extracts from:

Oxygen: The Molecule that made the World

Chapter 1: Elixir of Life and Death

Oxygen was once thought to be the Elixir of Life, and many of us still see only the good side of the gas. But medical researchers have long known that oxygen has a dark side too: it is a poison fatal to many bacteria, and is implicated in our own ageing and deaths. The balance between the good and dark sides of oxygen has had extraordinary effects on life over evolutionary time.... read more

Chapter 5: The Bolsover Dragonfly

The Bolsover dragonfly is a fossil of a primitive giant dragonfly, with a wingspan the size of a hawk, which lived in the Carboniferous coal swamps 300 million years ago. Its giant size, along with other findings from the same period, suggest that atmospheric oxygen levels may have reached as much as 35%, some 50% more than today. The implications for life and the future of our planet are profound.... read more

Chapter 8: Looking for LUCA

The identity of LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life on Earth, can be pieced together by comparing the genes of different organisms, especially from the domains of bacteria and archaea. The inferred character of LUCA is a shock: she was genetically geared up to breathe oxygen, even before there was any free oxygen in the air.... read more

Chapter 14: Beyond Genes and Destiny

The exact sequence of our genes is less important in human ageing than the changes in their activity imposed by oxygen. The double-agent theory, introduced later in this chapter, argues that there is an evolutionary tradeoff between our vulnerability to infectious diseases in youth and the diseases of old age later in life - a tradeoff ultimately controlled by the duplicitous nature of oxygen.... read more

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