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from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1996

A good publication for your professional library

Molecular Biology of the Cell
Third edition, 1994. 1294 pages + appendices. ISBN: 0-8153-1620-8 (paperback)
or 0-8153-1619-4 (hardback). Garland Publishing, Inc., 717 Fifth Avenue,
New York City, New York 10022.

A First-Rate Reference Book for Biology Teachers

David L. Jameson

Molecular Biology of the Cell exposes the full beauty of our present knowledge of cell biology. This book is a delight, worthy of being included in the library of every small college that has a life-sciences program, and every high school that offers an honors course or advanced-placement course in biology. It also merits a place, as a reference book, on the desk of every high-school teacher who gives a general-biology course based on the BSCS Blue Version. Any teacher who has completed a respectable program in biology education, and has been legitimately certified to teach biology in high schools, should be able to use Molecular Biology of the Cell with ease.

The 24 chapters in Molecular Biology of the Cell are grouped into four sections: "Introduction to the Cell," "Molecular Genetics," "Internal Organization of the Cell" and "Cells in Their Social Context." The last section includes chapters on topics that should be of great interest to students in advanced high-school courses: sex, immunity, development in metazoans, growth, and cancer.

Throughout, the book displays the scientific accuracy that only knowledgeable specialists can achieve -- and Molecular Biology of the Cell is surely the work of knowledgeable specialists. Its authors are Bruce Alberts (the biochemist who currently is the president of the National Academy of Sciences), Dennis Bray (of the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge), Julian Lewis (of the Developmental Biology Unit at the University of Oxford), Martin Raff (a professor in the Biology Department at University College London), Keith Roberts (head of the Department of Cell Biology at the John Innes Institute, in Norwich, England) and James D. Watson (the Nobel laureate who is the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on Long Island).

These six, aided by several other scientists who contributed to some of the book's chapters, have taken an approach that integrates structure, function, biochemistry and evolution, giving special relevance to such complex topics as electron transport, polymerases, repair mechanisms, and the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts. The writing is clear, the illustrations are excellent, and the interactions between text and illustrations attest to the care with which the authors and other contributors approached their tasks. So do the well prepared glossary and the detailed, accurate index.

In their prefatory material on page xi, the authors say that "even a stranger to biology" can read Molecular Biology of the Cell by starting at the beginning. Their claim is well justified. They also say that, in citing references, they have tried "to select mainly those that should be available in most libraries." That claim seems to be a stretch. We can expect that big, comprehensive university libraries will have most of the journals that are cited, but smaller libraries will not.

In my judgment, the authors haven't put quite enough emphasis on the fact that our current understanding of cells is expanding rapidly, as the number of researchers increases and the human genome project stimulates new work. This lapse, however, is a very small one. Molecular Biology of the Cell is a great book.


David L. Jameson is a senior research fellow of the Osher Laboratory of Molecular Systematics at the California Academy of Sciences. He has written books about evolutionary genetics and the genetics of speciation, and he is a coauthor of a college-level general-biology text.

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