The Spark of Life – Book Review

coverI had the great pleasure in late October to attend the awarding of the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science to Dr Frances Ashcroft for her book The Spark of Life. The ceremony included a lecture by the author followed by a dinner at the Rockefeller University President’s  house and further discussion with the author. Everyone who attended the event received a signed copy of the book and since the book is a celebration of all things ion channel, I thought my blog would be a great place for me to promote it as a great read for anybody who shares Dr Ashcroft’s and my passion for these proteins.

The Spark of Life is written as popular science for the general public. However, I stilled learned a great deal through Dr Ashcroft’s descriptions of the history, discovery and study of bioelectricity.  This includes a personal description of her own seminal contribution with the discovery of a glucose metabolism gated K+ channel in pancreatic beta-cells  (Ashcroft et al. 1984). This was the first time that a cells metabolic activity was shown to be directly linked to its electrical activity and the channel was later determined to be ATP-gated K+ channel, Kir6.2 which along with the sulfonylurea receptor (SUR) make up the KATP channel (Cook & Hales, 1984). For a recent review check out Ashcroft and Rorsman.

In this book Dr Ashcroft discusses everything from the early experiments of Luigi Galvani that established the existence of bioelectricity and inspired the first ever science fiction novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, to the war of currents battled between George Westinghouse (using Nicola Tesla’s generators) and Thomas Edison. In addition to the fascinating discussion of history, the book also examines the important physiological roles that ion channels play. With chapters on nerve impulses, synapses, muscles, the heart and the brain Dr. Ashcroft clearly demonstrates to the reader the important role that ion channels play in the body and the significant medical implications of their study.

My favorite chapter is the one that describes the physiology of the electric fishes. Dr Ashcroft uses tales of the early scientific investigations of the scientist-explorer Alexander von Humbolt (which includes a description of how the South American natives taught him to capture electric eels by ‘fishing with horses’) to introduce the reader to these amazing animals. She then goes on to discuss with great clarity to physiology of the electric organs and how the fish use them for hunting, protection and electroreception (a true sixth sense).

For anyone interested in ion channels from the general reader to the seasoned researcher there is something in The Spark of Life for you.

Work Cited

Ashcroft, F. M., & Rorsman, P. (2013). KATP channels and islet hormone secretion: new insights and controversies. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 9(11), 660–669. doi:10.1038/nrendo.2013.166

Ashcroft, F. M., Harrison, D. E., & Ashcroft, S. J. (1984). Glucose induces closure of single potassium channels in isolated rat pancreatic beta-cells. Nature, 312(5993), 446–448.

Cook, D. L., & Hales, C. N. (1984). Intracellular ATP directly blocks K+ channels in pancreatic B-cells. Nature, 311(5983), 271–273.


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