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OPINION NATURE|Vol 464|25 March 2010

as global natural bouncing points of laser light off bronze casts Erdmann, who usually generates computer
resources dwindle of Back (I) and Back (II) demonstrate how simulations of fluid dynamics and analyses
and Earth warms, Matisse modified the reliefs. the microstructure of materials. He hopes
the arctic is set to These fresh insights into Matisse’s working that the exhibition will stimulate further col-
become a geopolitical methods show how science can transform laborations applying advanced image analysis
stage. in the Future our understanding of art. “Working with to art conservation. ■
history of the arctic the conservators at the Art Institute of Chi- Josie Glausiusz is a journalist based in New York.
(Publicaffairs, 2010), cago has been a wonderful experience,” says e-mail: jg@planetjosie.net
Charles Emmerson, a writer and
global-risk specialist, explains how
the region’s oil and mineral wealth is
being eyed by surrounding nations.
he reveals the forces that will shape Evidence for rna origins
the arctic this century, looking at its
history and landscape, from polar Life From an RNA World: The Ancestor The writing picks up when Yarus lays out the
expeditions and russian gulags to oil- Within talents of RNA. As a molecule that is stable,
industry sprawl. Emmerson’s analysis by Michael Yarus single-stranded and able to form complex
comes on the heels of two other recent Harvard University Press: 2010. 208 pp. structures, it can assume many roles. Ribos-
books by writers who travelled across $24.95, £18.95, €22.50 omal and transfer RNAs provide the scaffold-
the arctic to witness the region’s ing to help make proteins and translate the
development — alun anderson’s after information held in messenger RNA, which
the ice (harperCollins, 2009) and The RNA-world hypothesis proposes that itself transcribes the information coded in
sara Wheeler’s the Magnetic North today’s DNA-based life forms evolved from DNA. The ribonucleotide building blocks that
(Jonathan Cape, 2009). earlier ones that were based on much simpler make up RNA are essential for enzyme func-
RNA molecules. Although no such RNA-based tion, and there are RNAs that have their own
Water is becoming organism, or ribocyte, has yet been found, bio- catalytic activity, known as ribozymes. Discov-
scarce. in Water chemist Michael Yarus marshals the theoretical ered by US molecular biologist Thomas Cech,
(harperCollins, considerations and lab experiments that lend these can cut themselves out from larger mol-
2010), journalist support to this notion for the origin of life. ecules. Other recent discoveries have revealed
steven solomon Life From an RNA World is an unconven- the existence of small RNAs, including micro-
offers a sweeping tional book about RNA. Rather than opening RNAs, that are intimately involved in control-
history of civilization’s with the central dogma and attendant teachings ling gene expression and translating messenger
struggle to obtain and on molecular biology, Yarus uses evolution as a RNA. But the fact that RNA can adopt this vast
manage water supplies. his synthesis gateway. He then takes us on a journey through catalogue of forms is insufficient evidence for
examines trends caused by climate evolutionary time, concentrating on the roles of a precursor RNA world.
change including melting glaciers, the various forms of RNA. Although the book More compelling is the ability of RNA to
flooding and drought; social divisions reads like a collection of philosophical essays, its evolve under selection pressure, as demon-
between those who have access to author is a proficient guide. strated in the elegant SELEX experiments done
water and those who do not; how water Yarus first describes the basis of Darwinian in Larry Gold’s lab at the University of Colo-
is key to national security; and how it evolution, in which the “secret is selection”. rado, Boulder. This evolutionary adaptability
He explains how differences in the sequence may be why it is the nucleic acid of choice for
BOOKS in BRief

has played a part in the rise and fall of


great powers through history. of the RNA found in an organism’s ribosomes the genome of some of the most difficult and
— part of the protein-making machinery of changeable pathogens, such as the influenza
in Bridges (Oxford the cell — are used to classify it into one of the viruses. It is a key part of the argument that it
Univ. Press, 2010), three kingdoms of life. He introduces LUCA, was RNA that generated subsequent life forms,
engineer David the Last Universal Common Ancestor, “behind and that RNAs were a primitive system for
blockley sings the or before which lies the RNA world”. making short chains of amino acids — a sys-
praises of spanning Various hypotheses about the origin of life tem that evolved to produce the protein-based
structures. in a are related in the book. One such is an idea that structural and metabolic machinery found in
clear, no-nonsense was independently reached by British geneticist organisms today.
account, he explains J. B. S. Haldane and Russian biochemist Alexan- Further proof for the primitive RNA world
how to ‘read’ a bridge — its form, der Oparin. They suggested that the chemically could come from next-generation sequencing
design and construction — and how reducing environment of the primitive Earth platforms that allow deep sampling of nucleic-
it conducts the forces along its length plus energy from ultraviolet light, lightning or acid populations from microorganisms in
to generate its strength. he describes other sources could generate several organic exotic locations, such as in deep-sea volcanic
what makes a good bridge and tells the molecules. Chemists Stanley Miller and Harold vents. But at present, the RNA world remains
stories of past great bridge builders. he Urey tested this at the University of Chicago in conjecture, based on powerful observations
also gives insight into famous failures, 1952 in their ‘primordial soup experiments’ that that this book captures. ■
such as the Tacoma narrows bridge created amino acids from methane, ammonia, Tim Harris is chief technology officer at SAIC-
collapse in Washington state and hydrogen and water when the mixture was Frederick, Frederick, Maryland 21702, USA.
london’s wobbly Millennium bridge. exposed to an electrical discharge. e-mail: harristjr@mail.nih.gov
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