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Book Review The Natural Selection of the Chemical Elements. By R. J. P. Williams and J. J. R. Frasto da Silva

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BOOKS
-
and medicinal chemistry and the history
of chemistry.
George B. Kuuffman, Laurie M . KaujJman
California State University
Fresno, CA (USA)
The Natural Selection of the Chemical
Elements. By R. J P . Williutns and
.J J R. Frausto da Silva. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996. 646 pp.,
hardcover S75.00. - ISBN 0-19855843-0
Evolution is a universal process which
appears in different forms. One of these is
chemical evolution, and in this book
R. J. P. Williams and J. J. R. Frausto da
Silva examine the question of how the
“selection” aspect
of evolution applies
to the chemical elements. The elements, either in isolation or in chemical compounds, behave differently towards external influences, and as a
result they undergo
a form of “selection”. Thus, their distribution and function in nature are a consequence of their properties. This relationship, which at first seems trivial, turns out
to be remarkably complex when looked at
in detail.
Part I of the book consists of seven
chapters in which the authors explain the
principles governing the natural selection
of the chemical elements. First they remind the reader of some basic facts about
general, inorganic, and physical chemistry. Then they turn in detail to various
aspects of phases and compartmentaiization, which are referred to frequently in
the later discussions. The interdisciplinary
approach and breadth of subject matter
that are key characteristics of the book are
already evident here. Thus, in the space of
only ten pages within a chapter the authors progress from the conventional separation processes of inorganic chemistry
to the structures of a sub-unit in a bacterial ribosome and of a DNA-histone octamer complex. Part I ends with a chapter
on kinetic control, activation barriers,
feedback, and organization.
Part I1 contains nine chapters dealing
with the natural selection of the elements
in both living and inanimate systems. We
learn that selection can occur by various
mechanisms: through the establishment
of thermodynamic equilibria, through ki298
0 VCH
netic trapping, as a consequence of the
functional value of a particular element in
an organized system (such as a living organism), or lastly by deliberate actions related to the value of a substance for survival, protection, welfare, or pleasure (e.g.
in human activities). The reader is also
taken on a journey through time, from the
origin of our planet and the evolution of
organic compounds, to the earliest anaerobic organisms and their possible biochemistry. then to present-day organisms
and the effects of human activity on the
cycling of the elements. The main emphasis is on chemical elements in living organisms, and the authors link the discussion
to their earlier book The Biological Chemistry of the Elements. The Inorganic Chemistry of Lde (review: Angew. Chem. 1993,
105, 315; Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. Engl.
1993, 32, 300). It is presumably not by
chance that the present book has a representation of Botticelli’s Venus on the cover, since that is also the logo of the Society
of Biological Inorganic Chemistry.
By bringing together knowledge from a
variety of disciplines the authors develop
many new ideas and concepts, some of
which are quite speculative. For example,
it is interesting to consider the consequences of changes in the availability of a
particular element or compound. Organisms initially treat a new substance as a
poison, and they therefore develop internal protective mechanisms. In the course
of time these evolve into systems that use
the “poison” as a chemical messenger. In
the final stage of development the substance becomes incorporated into the organism as a normal constituent. Are we at
present seeing the beginning of such a development sequence for aluminum, which
is becoming increasingly available to lifeforms as a result of acid rain? Copper,
which is now an essential element for all
living organisms, was unavailable up to
about 2; billion years ago, as it was locked
in the form of sulfides of extremely low
solubility. It was not until oxygen began
to be produced by photosynthesis that the
element became available in a more soluble form, through the conversion of sulfide to sulfate.
The discussions are illustrated by several hundred figures and tables. At the end
of each chapter is a list of publications for
more advanced study, and a comprehensive index is provided at the end of the
book. Only a few errors that I found are
worth mentioning. Thus, manganite is
MnO(OH), not MnO,O, (Fig. 5.17); in
Figure 6.24 the length of the bar is
0.1 micron, not 10 micron; the value
given in Figure 7.2 for the pressure at the
center of the sun is many orders of magni-
Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 0-69451 Weinheim.1997
0570-0833197i3603-029~$ 15 00
tude too small; the formula for glutathione in Figure 11.24 is incorrect;
Galileo was born in 1564, not 1524 (p.
598). The importance of the book extends
well beyond chemistry, as it promotes a
view of nature as an interdependent
whole, and a respectful attitude towards
both living and inanimate forms. In this
respect it is unfortunate that the readership will probably be essentially limited to
graduate chemists with a sound scientific
education. However, all those who think
that they fit into this category are emphatically recommended to read the book.
Henry Strasdeit
Fachbereich Chemie
(Anorganische Chemie)
der Universitat Oldenburg (Germany)
The Chemistry of Organophosphorus
Compounds. Volume 4. Ter- and Quinquevalent Phosphorus Acids and their
Derivatives. (Series: The Chemistry
of Functional Groups. Series editors:
S. Patui and Z. Ruppoport.). Edited
by E R. Hartley. Wiley, Chichester,
1996. 945 pp., hardcover L 320.00.ISBN 0-471-95706-2
Volume 4 of The Chemistry of Organophosphorus Compounds completes this
four-volume work, six years after the first
volume appeared. Thus it is now appropriate to evaluate not only this volume but
the work as a whole.
In an earlier review (Angew. Chem. Int.
Ed. Engl., 1996,35, 667) it was remarked
that even after the publication of the first
three volumes a clear plan for the overall
work was not yet apparent. Now that all
four volumes have appeared, this conclusion remains unchanged.
Volume 4 contains ten chapters dealing
with important aspects of organophosphorus chemistry. The authors are wellknown specialists in their fields. R. s. Edmundson has written no less than five of
the chapters (over 600 pages in total). The
volume begins with a short chapter by 0.
Dahl on derivatives of acids containing
trivalent phosphorus. This is followed by
Edmundson’s five chapters, which are
concerned with phosphonic and phosphinic acids and their derivatives. In the
case of these chapters especially, one
would have liked this material to be published sooner. A chapter by E. Breuer
treats the related topic of acyl phosphonates.
Next there is a very welcome chapter by
R. A. J. O’Hair on mass-spectrometric
studies of organophosphorus com-
+ 2510
Angebv. Chem. In:. Ed Engl. 1997. 36, N o . 3
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