Teaching developmental biology can be tricky. Effective teaching requires the integration of aspects of molecular biology, cell biology and genetics set against the three-dimensional architecture of the embryo and rapid change with time as development progresses. The best way to learn developmental biology is via observation and experiment. This approach, however, frequently falls foul of the modularisation of university courses.
Embryonic development marches to its own tune and rarely respects the usual few hours a week allocated to a module. An alternative to direct study is clear presentation of theory, backed up with modern audiovisual aids. How well do these new texts help us face these challenges?
A Practical Guide to Developmental Biology by Melissa Gibbs is aimed directly at those running laboratory classes in developmental biology. Detailed protocols that a student could follow in a practical session explore aspects of the developmental biology of plants and animals from gametogenesis to metamorphosis. Appendices deal comprehensively with background information. I read this book eagerly, searching for experiments I could integrate into my own teaching. Immediately, I realised that I would not be able to use all the protocols, but some are viable and others adaptable with a little imagination.
To complement practicals, clear presentation of theory is essential.
Principles of Developmental Biology by Fred Wilt and Sarah Hake approaches the subject from this direction. This is a heavyweight textbook that encroaches on territory occupied by Scott Gilbert's Developmental Biology and the more concept-based Principles of Development by Lewis Wolpert et al . It has the hallmarks of a successful competitor, providing comprehensive coverage and clear figures that are available electronically for use in lectures. An associated website for students is promised soon.
Wilt and Hake deal with models and concepts in an introductory fashion in early chapters, then return later with up-to-date molecular detail. I like their approach. It fits well with the progressive way in which developmental biology is usually taught, and it does it in a way that preserves the excitement and wonder that those who explore development feel when studying the amazing transition of a fertilised egg cell into an adult.
In summary, both books are welcome additions to my shelf. Although neither will form the sole basis for a course, neither will be neglected.
Sebastian M. Shimeld is lecturer in zoology, Oxford University.
A Practical Guide to Developmental Biology
Author - Melissa A. Gibbs
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 118
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 19 924971 7