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Book Review: One Plus One Equals One - Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life

1 June 2015
Appeared in BioNews 804

One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life

By Professor John Archibald

Published by Oxford University Press

ISBN-10: 019966059X, ISBN-13: 978-0199660599

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Imagine trying to solve a mystery that's several billion years old: how did the compartmentalised cell evolve? The two suspects are organelles - the mitochondria and the chloroplasts. The clues you've got are a handful of dust (fossilised cells) and a molecular clock that can't keep accurate time. Even Sherlock Holmes would struggle. Fortunately, a crack team of some of the 20th century's greatest biologists were on the case. In One Plus One Equals One, Professor John Archibald masterfully tells the incredible tale of passionate scientists, their hair-raising experiments, and the ancient cellular alliances that spawned multicellular life as we know it.

This is a hugely important area in which plenty of debate is ongoing and Professor Archibald is the perfect guide to the field. As a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Dalhousie University, Canada, his lab uses molecular biological and computational methods to study the genomes of eukaryotic (nucleus-containing) microorganisms. Yet his motivation for writing the book was a sudden realisation, 'how little I actually knew about the history of my field. I decided to do something about it'.

Professor Archibald is also a highly experienced science communicator, involved in editing a raft of prestigious scientific journals and this experience clearly reflects in his sharp writing style. He weaves seamlessly in and out of topics, dropping threads and picking them up again when needed. The technique works to build up the layers of information gradually into a cohesive whole, rather than dividing the book into clunky sections or sticking rigidly to chronological timescales. This is extremely good writing, and Professor Archibald makes it look easy.

The introduction eases the reader into the basics of biology, assuming no previous scientific knowledge. But don't be fooled by this gentle introduction - the concise size of the book means that the pace quickly accelerates into the fast lane of fact highway. Readers, buckle up.

Fortunately, Professor Archibald avoids becoming textbook-like because of his almost lyrical flair with words and witty characterisations. A jaunty series of character vignettes covers many of the illustrious forefathers of modern science. Professor Archibald is not afraid to slip in a wry personal opinion of some of these revered figures – 'James Watson and Francis Crick will be remembered for many things. Modesty will not be one of them'. Although Professor Archibald does fully acknowledge Rosalind Franklin's contribution to their work, it is unfortunate that, much as in her lifetime, she is literally relegated to a footnote.

However, one of his most vivid and enjoyable characterisations is of the biologist Lynn Margulis, prone to statements such as, 'I don't consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right'. By outlining the personalities, experiments and debates of the major players in the developing endosymbiosis field he makes the hard science accessible and immersive.

The study of endosymbiosis really began in the latter half of the 20th century, with the rise of gene sequencing. The book does credit the struggles of earlier scientists, such as Constantin Mereschkowsky, who had correctly hypothesised the bacterial origin of organelles - and had been roundly ignored. But although the concept had 'the potential to wreak havoc with traditional views of Darwinian evolution', Professor Archibald reckons the great man would have been delighted with it.

The main questions considered are: what is endosymbiosis, when did it happen and, perhaps most interestingly, what's in it for whom? Did a spike in atmospheric oxygen drive the process? How did the cells merge - was it phagocytosis, or the hydrogen hypothesis? Professor Archibald answers all these questions and more, while fairly acknowledging the uncertainty and debate still raging in the field.

Of course, mitochondria are an area of great interest at the moment because of the recent mitochondrial transfer - or 'three parent baby' - debate in the UK. Perhaps surprisingly, Professor Archibald doesn't mention this, although in my opinion it would be interesting to consider how viewing the mitochondria as ancestral bacteria could change public perception of the issue.

Reviewing this book as a biologist, I had the advantage of recognising many elements of the endosymbiosis story. But I would hypothesise that you don't need a biology degree to appreciate One Plus One Equals One and, if you do, you'll undoubtedly still learn something new. I certainly enjoyed reading about the scientific saga that allowed this story to be told. I would enthusiastically recommend this fast-paced and eloquent book to everyone with an interest in the strange and unlikely history of life.

Buy One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life from Amazon UK.

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