from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 2

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Essential Cell Biology
Second edition, 2004.  740 pages + appendices.  ISBN: 0-8153-3480-X.
Published by Garland Science, 29 West 35th Street, New York City, New York 10001.

This Fine New Edition Retains
All of the First Edition's Beauty

David L. Jameson

In a highly favorable review that I wrote for The Textbook Letter, I said that the first edition of Essential Cell Biology was "a beautifully structured text for use in high-school honors courses or advanced-placement courses" [see note 1, below]. The second edition retains all the beauty of the first, and it serves as an editorial model -- a guide that shows us how serious authors prepare a new version of a serious book.

The first edition was the work of seven authors, all of them outstanding scientists [note 2]. For the second edition, the team of authors has been expanded to include a science writer, Karen Hopkin, whose main responsibility (the Preface tells us) has been "to make the book clear, accessible, and fun to read."

As in the earlier edition, there is a digest of "Essential Concepts" near the end of each chapter, and the illustrations are grouped into panels that actually explain principles, structures, procedures and experiments, rather than just providing pretty distractions. Some of the material has been reordered, the coverage has been broadened to include some new findings and new methods, there is more emphasis on genetics, and there is an expanded, improved complement of questions that make students take time to think, to realize that a question often has more than one valid answer, and to recognize that alternative perspectives are available in almost any situation. All of these changes are welcome.

So are the new articles that appear under the rubric "How We Know" and that teach students what science is all about. Here are two examples:

There are 21 "How We Know" articles -- one in every chapter -- providing information about metabolic pathways, protein structures, replication, the genetic code, mitosis, and cancer, among other topics. These articles impress me as very important innovations.

In the first edition, the final section of the book dealt with development. That section has been omitted from the second edition. I would have left it in, and I would have expanded it to show students how some results of modern studies have helped us understand the organizer principle, the operation of hox genes, and similar processes. Such processes tie the cell to the integrated organisms that students see and touch and smell and are.

Each copy of the new edition is accompanied by a CD-ROM, and the CD-ROM is not a mere gimmick or toy. It is a valuable adjunct to the textbook, and it has two important functions. First, it carries the literature references for each chapter in the book. (The references don't appear in the book itself.) Second, the CD-ROM provides interactive illustrations, typically with voice-over narrations, that demonstrate such things as the structures of molecules, the movement of cells, and the processes of replication, translation and cell division.

What makes for a great science education is not the amassing of facts but the understanding of concepts, processes and syntheses, and the realization that all our information about nature must be subject to testing and revision. That is the kind of educational experience that students can acquire from the second edition of Essential Cell Biology.

I recommend this new edition for use in advanced high-school courses aimed at students who already have had a course in chemistry and a solid introductory course in biology. This fine book also belongs in the library of any high school that offers serious instruction in science. Teachers and librarians who did not get the first edition should look at this second edition pronto.


  1. See "We Need More Biology Textbooks Like This One" in The Textbook Letter, Vol. 8, No. 3. [return to text]

  2. Bruce Alberts (who is a biochemist and the president of the National Academy of Sciences), Dennis Bray (of the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge), Alexander Johnson (a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of California, San Francisco), Martin Raff (of the Biology Department at University College London), Keith Roberts (head of the Cell Biology Department at the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, England), Peter Walter (director of the Cell Biology Program at the University of California, San Francisco), and Julian Lewis. Lewis was affiliated with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund when the first edition of Essential Cell Biology was published. He now works at the London Research Institute of Cancer Research UK. [return to text]

  3. As the writers of Essential Cell Biology point out, the idea that genes were proteins "proved hard to shake." I well remember, from my time as a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, two senior professors who didn't agree on much, didn't like each other much, and espoused opposing views of the chemical composition of genes. One day, as they passed each other in the hall, not far from my graduate-student desk, one of them said "Protein," the other said "DNA," and this was all that they said to one other for weeks. [return to text]

David L. Jameson is a specialist in molecular biology and a senior research fellow of the Osher Laboratory of Molecular Systematics at the California Academy of Sciences (in San Francisco). His published works include books on evolutionary genetics and the genetics of speciation.


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