Gene material still reproducing

Genes VII. Seventh Edition - Principles of Genetics . Second Edition - Genetics
February 25, 2000

America in this century has been renowned for its feats of production and excesses of consumption. Who can forget the fins on the 1959 Cadillac or the proud boast of 31 flavours of Baskin Robbins ice cream? This profligacy extends to educational material. I am repeatedly surprised by the appearance of new genetics textbooks; there are 14 sitting on my office shelf, even though I probably refer to only two on a regular basis. These books are not small productions but tomes running to 700 or 800 pages and including problems for students to solve, worked examples, speculations on genetics and society, links to websites and profiles of famous geneticists. Of course the principal reason these textbooks are so big is the enormous body of material that makes up modern genetics. Authors want to cover the history of traditional genetic analysis, the molecular biology of the gene and the regulation of gene expression, the application of genetics to humans and to the study of animal development, genome sequencing, evolutionary genetics and more. Clearly, much of this material is common to many books, which can make it hard to distinguish between them.

Genetics: From Genes to Genomes covers most of the topics one would expect of a wide-ranging textbook explaining genetics to first and second-year undergraduates. The book continues the tradition of several successful texts in having an author list comprising well-known experts respected for their own research efforts. For example, Lee Hood is well known for his studies of immunoglobulin genes and the development of high-tech approaches to DNA and protein analysis. Lee Silver is a mouse geneticist who has developed a high profile recently for warning of the possible dangers from the increasing application of genetic technologies to human reproduction. This may be reflected in the epilogues to many chapters, which raise social and ethical questions. Refreshingly, this book's author list also includes a professional textbook writer.

There are two aspects of the book that particularly struck me. The first is the frequent use of long sub-headings that are very informative and convey a point or principle rather than just being descriptive. These headings clearly identify concepts and strategies. The other notable feature is the excellent treatment given to developmental genetics. Along with studies of human genetics, the biggest advances in recent years have come from the application of genetic strategies to understanding how an organism develops.

All modern genetics textbooks have a chapter on the genetics of development but this book devotes five chapters to the topic, in the form of "genetic portraits" of model organisms. These deal, in turn, with yeast, Arabidopsis, C.elegans, Drosophila and the mouse. Each of these chapters follows a common plan, starting with an overview of the organism's life cycle and its genetics followed by a good explanation of techniques and strategies applicable to genetic analysis in that organism. A detailed examination is then paid to analysis of one aspect of the organism's development - for example, floral morphogenesis in Arabidopsis. The visual presentation of the book is good and my only minor gripe is that no references are provided, either to classic papers or to recent review articles that an interested student could use to extend their knowledge.

Principles of Genetics by Peter Snustad and Michael Simmons is the second edition of a book I was unfamiliar with. This is suitable for first and second-year undergraduate courses. All the major topics are explained with plenty of examples of the importance of genetics to human affairs, both medical and social, which should stimulate a student's interest. Less emphasis is given to developmental genetics, but there is a fuller treatment of the inheritance of complex traits and evolutionary genetics and there is a short but nice chapter on the genetic analysis of behaviour in experimental animals and humans. The diagrams are clear and helpful and there is a good selection of references at the end of each chapter.

Genes VII is the latest edition of a very successful textbook used in many undergraduate courses. I have never been clear why, as in my experience, students do not enjoy the book. It is different from the other two texts; more suited to second and third-year undergraduates, and it does not aim to be a general genetics textbook. For example, it does not deal with evolution or the genetics of behaviour, but rather focuses on the detailed molecular biology of topics such as chromatin structure, regulation of gene expression and RNA-splicing mechanisms. The style of the book is very descriptive and appears to deal less with concepts; it is certainly not a book to dip into, nor is it an inviting book to read.

This book was published only last month so I was rather shocked to find that the last chapter, "Gradients, cascades and signalling pathways", cites, as its most recent references, review articles and original research papers that date back to 1995. Has nothing happened since then? The overall message of the chapter is not severely weakened by the failure to incorporate more recent findings, but remember this is a book costing £65 in hardback. For that kind of money I would expect a more up-to-date treatment. It is also at odds with the blurb on the back cover that claims the book to be "extensively updated" and "to present the most current research". By an amazing oversight in production, there is a very significant problem with many of the diagrams. In many instances a coloured stippling is used, similar to that in tests for colour blindness where you look for the hidden numbers. This stippling obscures features and labelling in the diagrams and induces a distinct queasiness in the reader.

Fred Tata is lecturer in genetics, University of Leicester.

Genes VII. Seventh Edition

Author - Benjamin Lewin
ISBN - 0 19 8796 X and 8797 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £65.00 and £31.99
Pages - 990

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