Why is a biochemist like a cook?

The Chemistry of Life. Fourth Edition

February 25, 2000

This book will appeal to anyone who wants some entry-level biochemistry.

However, as with its first incarnation, which was published in 1966, its likely readership will be enthusiastic sixth-formers and baffled undergraduates. I read the revised version of the first edition of The Chemistry of Life in 1976 as an inchoate life scientist. It was considered an important primer for first years, a link between the genial A-level biology texts and the steelier hardbacked canons. For me, it was a salutary experience. It taught me that there was a middle way and that biochemistry did have consequences in the day-to-day world.

Steven Rose says that he never intended The Chemistry of Life to be a textbook but its small size and thorough indexing make it incredibly useful and easy to keep at hand. Rose has an easy didactic style. Hard facts are given context either through the history of their acquisition or by relating them to everyday things. At the beginning of the book, Rose draws a comparison between biochemists and cooks. It is a good analogy and I found echoes of it in many of the later chapters.

This expanded version of The Chemistry of Life essentially follows the path laid out by the first edition, though it has obviously been updated. Much of the newer material comes in the last five chapters, including developments in recombinant DNA technology, regulation of cellular processes and, obscurely, a cap doffed to immunology in a chapter titled "Defending the organism".

This book has a little something for everyone, from hard facts and history to theory and its application in biotechnology. It provides the essential biochemistry that anyone who wants to enter into the wider debates on genetic modification should really know. Rose offers us something genuinely synthetic here, but beyond this there is an opportunity to read a critical insider''s perspective of a field that has recently become the subject of intense public scrutiny.

Richard Lake is adjunct senior lecturer in medicine, Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, Perth, Australia.

The Chemistry of Life. Fourth Edition

Author - Steven Rose with Radmilla Mileusnic
ISBN - 0 14 03 9
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £9.99
Pages - 404

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