Weighing in on the ever-evolving meaning of life

Instant Notes in Biochemistry. Third Edition - Fundamentals of Biochemistry - Molecular Biology - Biochemistry. Fifth Edition - Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Third Edition - Proteins
February 24, 2006

The arrival of a hundredweight in biochemistry and molecular biology texts generated a sinking feeling in the heart of this reviewer. At a time when the biological and biochemical sciences are overrun with facts and details - not to mention texts - one wonders whether the undergraduate world really needs another half-dozen textbooks.

My initial response was no, it does not; but having sequestered myself away for a number of days and progressed through the several thousand pages of information, I have, somewhat to my surprise, changed my mind. Certainly I am refreshed in the view that an understanding of biochemistry is central to an understanding of life - an understanding that is essential not just for those undergraduates who proceed along the cellular and molecular route, but also for those who favour a more organismal side of biology.

Biochemistry has travelled a long way in the 100 years since its inception, to the point where is has become established as a major scientific endeavour on a par with chemistry and physics. As an undergraduate who spent much time with Albert Lehninger's Biochemistry during the early 1980s, I can remember thinking that the field was more or less complete.

Clearly, as the books reviewed here reveal, this is not so. Advances in biochemistry, fuelled by ever-increasing technological prowess, continue to occur at a remarkable rate.

In terms of ready access to essential facts, Instant Notes in Biochemistry by David Hames and Nigel Hooper (in the series Bios Instant Notes) is excellent. It is broad in scope, fully up to date and well referenced (and cross-referenced) with complex issues simplified through the use of numerous highly informative diagrams. It is not a traditional textbook and lacks the detail found in the typical 1,000-plus-page biochemistry text, but it is the perfect reference for the student (or academic) who needs to gather essential facts and get quickly to the heart of the subject.

Fundamentals of Biochemistry by Donald Voet, Judith Voet and Charlotte Pratt, and Molecular Biology , by David Clark, are more traditional undergraduate texts: large, highly coloured and detailed in explanation.

The former is directed towards the budding biochemist but teaches the subject from a chemically oriented perspective. It contains a wealth of high-class pedagogical features including a CD and online supplements, bioinformatic exercises, animations and interactive exercises, to the point where one wonders whether a lecturer speaking in front of a class of students is at all necessary. The text is littered with different colours, fonts, text boxes, figures and figure captions, which are not always used to best effect and are at times distracting. What is wrong with a simple black-and-white graph? Nevertheless, the authors write well and do a fine job in conveying to students the most exciting advances in modern biochemistry.

Clark's text is rather impressive. Although the author suggests that it would suit final-year graduate students (in the US), I see little difficulty in it being used as a first-year genetics text. I particularly like its broad approach, covering the genetics of everything from the general principles through to the molecular biology of bacteriophages and prokaryotes (which are usually given short shrift in a general genetics text), eukaryote genetics, molecular evolution and a hefty chunk on the technological applications of molecular biology. The layout is especially good - simple and clear; and Clark includes a wide range of interesting and topical issues not typically found in undergraduate books. For example, which undergraduate normally gets to learn about homing endonucleases - the ultimate selfish element, or Genghis Khan's Y chromosome?

Clark also includes a substantive chapter on molecular evolution - which he might have titled "origins of life" - and this is particularly good. It covers seminal issues, including the formation of the Earth, Oparin's theory, the Miller experiment, the origins of metabolism, the origins of proteins and so forth. All excellent stuff: crucial to a full understanding of the biochemistry of life. Although some of these topics are dealt with by the other texts reviewed here, Clark's treatment stands out.

Mary Campbell and Shawn Farrell's Biochemistry has reached its fifth edition. It has always been a popular text, and rightly so. It is an excellent introduction to biochemistry and an appealing book. The text is superbly supported by an exemplary, assessment-centred online learning tool, replete with active and animated figures that serve to make the subject come alive.

The text is heavily question-oriented, with an extensive list of thought-provoking challenges posed at the end of each chapter. These serve to draw students into the heart of biochemistry. By asking, for example, whether breakdown of DNA repair might play a role in the development of human cancers, the text ensures that biochemistry becomes more than simply a collection of facts. Throughout the book, Campbell and Farrell go out of their way to make clear the connections between biochemistry and the biology of organisms.

Molecular biology and biochemistry are of course conjoined disciplines and this is evident in both the title and content of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology , by William and Daphne Elliott. Their book is attractively produced and does not require a trailer to transport it. It is aimed at the first-year undergraduate curriculum and, like Hames and Hooper's book, it deliberately avoids excessive detail to produce a readable and up-to-date account of the subject matter.

The Elliotts draw heavily on examples from medicine and, like Campbell and Farrell, they succeed in producing a text that incorporates biochemistry within a biological framework. The medical slant ensures that the text is particularly well suited to biomedical programmes.

The final book in my stack concerns a more specific branch of biochemistry, namely proteins, those most remarkable molecular machines. David Whitford's Proteins: Structure and Function provides a preliminary and yet extensive introduction to the chemistry, activity, catalytic and structural properties of proteins. It adopts a holistic approach and puts all manner of recent advances into context.

Having persuaded the reader that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of proteins, Whitford takes us on a tour through the drier aspects of protein chemistry, but just when the book begins to weigh heavily, he adeptly deals with topics such as protein synthesis, processing and turnover in a most refreshing manner. Rather than listing proteins, their stabilities and agonists, he describes the cell cycle - and of course the cell cycle is nothing other than a lesson in protein processing.

Inevitably, much print is devoted to technologies for protein detection and structural determination, but this is no bad thing given that technological advances have repeatedly revolutionised protein science.

Despite impressive advances, there remains much to be discovered in biochemistry. Take influenza, for example (as Campbell and Farrell do). We know a great deal about the flu virus: its genome sequence, the proteins that the genome encodes, the three-dimensional structure of the viron, the means of infection and so forth; and yet we are largely ignorant of the kinds of nucleotide sequence changes necessary for the current avian influenza virus to transfer from human to human.

Perhaps there is a lesson here: as biochemistry becomes ever more focused on the most minuscule of mechanistic details, it pays to remember the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Our current ignorance as to the origins of the next flu pandemic is unlikely to be solved by advances in biochemistry alone, but a greater integration of evolution into biochemistry might just make a difference. There remain significant challenges and this is fortunate, for not only does the subject thereby justify the existence of this excellent set of texts, but it will continue to provide laudably worthy challenges to the curious student for many years to come.

Paul Rainey is professor of evolutionary genetics, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Instant Notes in Biochemistry. Third Edition

Author - David Hames and Nigel Hooper
Publisher - Bios
Pages - 438
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 415 36778 6

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