A sense of science

Cell and Molecular Biology - Genetics
February 26, 1999

Unlike chemistry or physics, biology is not a mature field; developments that alter the way the subject is perceived (by both scientists and non-scientists alike), and the relationship between sub-disciplines, are commonplace. This makes for an exciting and dynamic discipline that is a joy to be part of, but the sheer pace of change and the need for integrative thinking can make teaching at undergraduate level a significant challenge.

What do we hope our young geneticists and cell biologists gain from three years' study? Will they have recognised the power of cross-disciplinary thinking? Will they have developed analytical skills along with creativity, curiosity and imagination in science? I hope so, but I fear that the mountains of facts to which they are exposed get in the way.

Both Genetics and Cell and Molecular Biology are glossy, superbly illustrated undergraduate texts that integrate facts along with concepts and scientific method.

In Genetics this is skilfully achieved by incorporating key experiments within the text so that the reader is directly confronted with the way scientists think. For example, in the section dealing with gene regulation in prokaryotes we are led through basic principles to consider transcriptional control in the context of the Escherichia coli lactose operon. This is followed by a section based on the famous "PaJaMo" paper from 1959 in which the reader is transported into the minds of the scientists that performed the seminal experiments. We see the rationale for the experiments, a clearly presented hypothesis, plus data, along with an interpretation of the key findings.

Unlike many undergraduate texts, the author does not dogmatically present the results as irrefutable facts, but points out alternative hypotheses and areas of weakness.

Cell and Molecular Biology is less successful than Genetics in integrating facts with scientific method, but it is still a good text and supported with a variety of useful study guides and web sites. Gerald Karp's book is aimed at the first-year undergraduate market in the US, and in the UK it probably hits the boundary between A-level and first-year undergraduate. Its attempt to integrate a "sense of science" with the facts stems mostly from "boxed" asides, which serve a useful purpose but tend to fragment the text; the large number of summaries and bullet points can become a distraction.

Nonetheless, the text is comprehensive, accessible and contains a great deal of interesting peripheral information. Particularly effective in challenging the reader to think more broadly are "The human perspective" articles, which include discussions of issues raised by knowledge of the genetic basis of human disease and antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

I am unlikely to switch to Cell and Molecular Biology , preferring instead the excellent Molecular Biology of the Cell (B. Alberts et al , 1995, third edition), but I will certainly make use of Genetics . Its genes-to-population scope and excellent integration of scientific method should greatly aid the teaching and appreciation of genetics, a subject of pivotal importance among the biological sciences.

Paul Rainey is lecturer in microbiology and evolutionary genetics, University of Oxford.

Cell and Molecular Biology: Concepts and Experiments. Second Edition

Author - Gerald Karp
ISBN - 0 471 199 1
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £.50
Pages - 816

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