Undergraduate biologists frequently shudder at the thought of papers in genetics. Just why this should be so is not clear, although the cry "too difficult" is a common one. Sadly, I suspect that the perception of genetics as difficult reflects a general reluctance to engage with the subject at the intellectual level necessary - a sad indictment of the way many students are taught. The beauty and power of genetics lies in the fact that it requires us to think critically and insightfully.
When in need of scientific inspiration, I often resort to the classic works of genetics. A few moments reading the papers of, for example, Franois Jacob or Jacques Monod, of Salvador Luria, Max DelbrŸck or Mark Patashne, and I am left struck by the simplicity and elegance of the experiments, the clarity of thinking and the ensuing depth of insight. Inspiring our undergraduates to develop a similar degree of perceptive analysis has to be the goal of all those who teach genetics.
Of the three textbooks under review, Advanced Genetic Analysis: Finding Meaning in a Genome succeeds in provoking students to think like geneticists. It emphasises the fundamental intellectual operations that comprise modern genetics (mutation, complementation, suppression, regulation and segregation) and shows how these operations are applied. Quite rightly, mutants (and how to generate them) are at the core of the book, but at no time is the mutant itself the end goal. Geneticists are concerned with obtaining biological insight, and in this regard the authors show the importance of characterising mutants in ways that maximise insight into the connection between genome and phenotype. What I admire most about this book is that it advocates use of the technologies necessary to tackle the problem - in many cases these are established, inexpensive and involve little more than agar plates, sterile loops and brain power.
In addition to a clear portrayal of the fundamentals of genetics, Advanced Genetic Analysis champions the power of classical genetics. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. In the current age of "-omic-driven" research, the sense among some students - and even some professionals - is that genetics has become little more than whole-genome sequencing, and analysis of patterns of mRNA transcript and protein abundance. Nothing could be more incorrect. The real worry is that, as students and academics are seduced by the latest technologies, they lose precisely the skill set necessary to make sense of genomes.
Providing technological detail in genomics has been the primary goal of the authors of Principles of Genome Analysis and Genomics and Genomics: Applications in Human Biology . Both books provide overviews of selected aspects of biology relevant to genomics but, for the most part, they are concerned with the "doing" of genomics. This is particularly true of Principles , which incorporates chapters on global transcriptional analysis, comparative genomics and the applications of these technologies in biology, medicine and agriculture.
Genomics is the more specialised of the two books, but still manages to cover an impressive array of topics relevant to human biology, including infectious disease, cancer and biopharmaceuticals.
Wherever possible, the authors have gone out of their way to link technology and biological application. This is well done in the context of pathogenic microbes, where the genome sequence of both pathogens and humans, combined with various genome-enabled technologies, has facilitated breathtaking advances in the diagnosis and treatment of infectious disease. Although it gives the impression of being a last-minute addition, the short sections on ethical issues, such as those that arise from advances in gene therapy and human cloning, are useful.
These three books have different target audiences and serve different purposes. However, none fits the "glossy four-colour production type" typical of many undergraduate texts. I have no gripe with this, but I did find the layout of the books uninviting.
Advanced Genetic Analysis fits the genetics textbook mould, but its emphasis on foundational principles sets it apart from many of its contemporaries. I heartily recommend it. Although the book is intended for advanced undergraduates, its analytical approach, combined with a strong emphasis on principles, could lend itself to reading by first-year students.
Paul B. Rainey is professor of evolutionary genetics, University of Oxford and University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Advanced Genetic Analysis: Finding Meaning in a Genome. First edition
Author - Scott Hawley and Michelle Walker
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 239
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 1 40510 336 1