Developments in molecular genetics come at such bewildering speed that you are left gasping for breath. The number of glossy American genetics textbooks aimed at the lucrative undergraduate market leaves lecturers with bookcases full of complimentary copies, as the publishers court us with their regularly updated editions and accompanying CD-Roms. Against this background comes this large and rather drab-looking, Genetics Manual by George Redei. This book is more like a dictionary than a manual. It lists, from "a" to "z", subjects in genetics or allied fields, so the first entry is "adenine", "a purine base of nucleic acids", and the last, "zymotype", is "electrophoretically determined patterns of enzymes (proteins) characteristic for individuals or group of individuals". In between are 1,116 pages of everything else.
So, how can I test the manual? There is a knock at the door. In comes Natalie, my third-year project student who is doing a dissertation on whether or not there is a gene for homosexuality in humans. She has pulled out of the Human Genome website all the genes currently identified in an X-chromosome region. She asks me about these genes, most of which I have never heard of.
This is a good opportunity for the manual to show me what it can do. Natalie says something vague about Prader-Willi syndrome. She heard about it in a lecture, thinks it may have something to do with genomic imprinting, which in turn may have something to do with her project. Doubt it, but I look it up. There it is, Prader-Willi, an autosomal dominant defect: ten lines of text, including something about imprinting and Angelman syndrome, which is caused by the same deletion being transmitted through the mother. How it relates to the X-chromosome and homosexuality, who knows?
Next, there is a gene in this part of the X-chromosome that is related to proteins called RHO. Natalie quizzes me, but I have no clue. The manual comes to my rescue: "RHO, homolog of the RAS oncogene. It relays signals from cell surface receptors to the actin cytoskeleton." Just what I needed to know, plus another eight lines of text on this gene. Natalie looks impressed. What about this pseudogene that has regions that are TAX-sensitive? Again, I am completely lost, but the manual comes up with the goods: "TAX, a human T-cell leukemia virus protein that increases DNA binding of transcription factors containing a basic leucine zipper domain (see leucine zipper, leukemia)."
But do all those glossy genetics textbooks collecting dust on my shelves also do the trick ? They all describe Prader-Willi, but they all strike out on RHO and TAX. I, too, am now impressed, because I was dreading writing a negative review of this book, which was my first inclination when I weighed it.
In conclusion, for a quick and superficial fix, it will touch many more subjects than conventional genetics books, but the context will be largely missing. Nevertheless, it is a useful little big book, particularly for life scientists who flirt with the subject but do not have the nerve to call themselves professional geneticists. There is another knock on the door. Natalie pops her head round and asks to borrow the manual. I rest my case.
Charalambos P. Kyriacou is professor of behavioural genetics, University of Leicester.
Genetics Manual: Current Theory, Concepts, Terms
Author - George P. Redei
ISBN - 981 02 80 9
Publisher - World Scientific
Price - £54.00
Pages - 1,142