Three hundred million years ago, dragonflies grew as big as seagulls, with wingspans nearly a yard across. Researchers claim they could have flown only if the air had contained more oxygen than today-probably as much as 35 per cent. But oxygen is a toxic gas. Fruit flies raised at twice the normal level of oxygen live half as long as their siblings. If atmospheric oxygen reached 35 per cent in the Carboniferous, why did oxygen promote exuberant growth, instead of rapid aging and death? This is just one of the puzzles Nick Lane answers in Oxygen. Lane takes the reader on an enthralling journey, as gripping as a thriller, as he unravels the unexpected ways in which oxygen spurred the evolution of life and death. The book explains far more than the size of ancient insects: it shows how oxygen underpins the origin of biological complexity, the birth of photosynthesis, the sudden evolution of animals, the need for two sexes, the accelerated aging of cloned animals like Dolly the sheep, and the surprisingly long lives of bats and birds.
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Oxford University Press
December 07, 2012
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