The field of molecular biology is in ferment. What passed as molecular biology ten years ago now has a slightly dusty feel to it. In the pre-genomic era, nucleotide and protein sequence data ruled the show, and they were studied via rates of change in silent and coding positions, polymorphisms and biases in codon usage or amino-acid content. Now any list of high-flyers must include things such as SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), epigenetic modification, RNAi (RNA interference) and copy number variants - concepts, phenomena and methods barely heard of ten years ago, or seldom used.
The development and use of single nucleotide polymorhisms gives an idea of the pace of change in molecular biology. SNPs record places along a genome at which there is variation among the members of a population in what nucleotide is found there.
The HapMap (Haplotype Mapping) project is a consortium of laboratories that, among many other things, is trying to develop a SNP map of the human genome. With it, we know every place in the genome where humans vary. A recent paper published in the science journal Nature , however, pushes the HapMap project into the background (HapMappers will cavil at this). This new work shows that a huge and largely underappreciated source of variability exists in the human genome in the form of variation among people in the numbers of copies of large regions of their genomes - not just a single nucleotide but regions of hundreds of thousands of nucleotides. Take a breath: the human genome was announced only in 2001, and the HapMap project is even younger.
So it takes an energetic author to write about molecular biology at this moment in science. Lizabeth Allison is associate professor in biological sciences at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, US. She has produced a clearly written and well-organised tour of molecular biology.
She begins at "The beginnings of molecular biology" and then through 17 chapters and about 700 pages traverses from the foundations of molecular biology right through to genome sequencing - including discussion of SNPs and haplotypes - and medical applications.
Chapters include many well-illustrated colour figures, summaries, study questions and useful reference lists. The text could be used for introductory courses or for higher-level courses without fear of losing anyone.
A highlight of Allison's understated writing gives an idea of the feel for science this book provides. Her opening sentence is: "For decades, DNA was largely an academic subject and not the source of dinner-table conversation in the average household. In 1995 this changed when media coverage of the O. J. Simpson murder trial brought DNA fingerprinting to homes across the world."
Chapter two, "The structure of DNA", begins just as well: "The DNA double helix is an icon for modern biology; a form represented from art galleries to corporate logos." Just the right amount of relevance to motivate the chapter.
Fundamental Molecular Biology is pleasingly up to date in this rapidly advancing field, and its combination of history, relevance and technical detail makes it an attractive book for lecturers and their students.
Mark Pagel is professor of evolutionary biology, Reading University.
Fundamental Molecular Biology. First Edition
Author - Lizabeth Allison
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 704
Price - £34.99
ISBN - 1 4051 0379 5