Life from an RNA world: the ancestor within

On fact and fraud: cautionary tales from the front lines of science

Michael Yarus

Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press 2010 | 208pp | ?18.95 (HB)

ISBN 9780674050754

Reviewed by Michael Ladomery


Michael Yarus’ book is a very enjoyable read, be the reader a well informed molecular biologist, or a lay person. It would have been so easy to plunge into an ocean of technical jargon, making the poor reader drown in the turbulent water of a molecular biology field that has generated a deluge of information over the last few decades. RNA biochemistry is not for the faint hearted! Instead a clever use of metaphor and of literary references allows the reader to navigate easily through some very tricky concepts.

The book begins its journey into the RNA world by reminding the reader about the elegant simplicity of the Darwinian evolution and to the intricate ’big tree’ of life that connects all living beings. The properties of our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) are deducted and explained effectively; as are the key molecular processes that a living being must undertake in order to both thrive and reproduce.

The centrality of RNA in all of the molecular processes that underpin life on earth is clearly explained. The ability of RNA to perform catalytic functions, including self-splicing and self-replication, is illustrated effectively; and the fact that RNA can evolve artificially in the laboratory makes for especially compelling reading.

The argument that an RNA world must have preceded our modern, DNA and protein-centric world is made convincingly. The book ends by speculating about the ribocytes - RNA-based living beings, ancestors of LUCA, and ancestors of all life on earth.

Detailed reading lists are provided at the end of each chapter, allowing the reader to broaden horizons with both papers that have or will become true classics in the field. Surely this book will highlight and increase the interest in the RNA world; raising the awareness that we are all, after all, the children of RNA.