Saturday, 7 August 2010

Power, Sex, Suicide

by Nick Lane

Douglas Adams said the answer to life, the universe and everything was 42. Nick Lane says it's mitochondria. Apart from the fact it spoils one of the questions in the Bookshop Quiz I set some friends the other day, I prefer this new answer. 

Power, Sex, Suicide (catchy title, hey?) certainly convinced me of the importance of mitochondria, in our past (awesome!), in our present (a mixed bag) and our future (hang about....)

Lane takes us competently through the impressive role of the little chaps in the formation of multicellular life, sex, and the entirety of morphologically complex biology. The whole ruddy lot, as Alan Partridge would say. And he shows us some really excellent evolutionary explanations at the nuts/bolts level on the way.

But it gets a bit less palatable, though no less convincing, when he shows us their current and future significance. It's not a new idea that mitochondria play a significant role in ageing and even death, but we've got the details wrong, it seems, and we've completely missed out on the huge implications. Oops.

Old age and its ravages are not a build-up of individual mutations, ill-effects and late-triggering DNA bombs. It's a lot less daunting than that. The whole depressing lot of it can be laid at the feet (to clarify: mitochondria don't have feet) of a change in the environment in the cells from a build up of oxidization. That's a much smaller, singular, and solvable issue than the old model. The key word there is solvable. Say it after me: solvable.

Great, right? We can solve ageing, get rid of dozens of the worst illnesses we know about, and Not Die. Great, right?

I don't know. That scares the hell out of me.  We're already overfilling the planet with people... imagine what we'd be like if the old stock stays around. We won't stop getting new stock in, we'll just fill up, then starve. That's a messy business, all round.

Or we will adapt, and become a race of a specifically (and culturally) limited number of citizens, something like the Heaven of Jehovah's Witnesses. You know, there will only be 144,000 people at any one time. You can only have a child if there is a hole to fill -- ie. someone dies. Not old age death, not degenerative-disease death, but death death. Prospective parents would hire out assassins on their neighbours, or try and convince Granny to do the decent thing and take the damn pill, I mean she's been around for 200 years, let someone else have a go... Or the generous amongst us will give people their own suicide as a present. &c. &c. 

That nightmare aside, getting rid of all these things is/would be amazing, and no amount of bad sci-fi should count as an ethical rebuttal. But still, when they make an apocalypse/dystopia film epic of this scenario, I want to be the person who shouts 'WHERE WILL IT ALL END?' in the first ten minutes, then dies in a way that later seems ironic... and is never mentioned again, until he is finally and unsurprisingly referenced in the final scene of the film, just after it inevitably ended in tears and a destroyed planet. Roll credits.

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