from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1997

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Essential Cell Biology
Subtitle: An Introduction to the Molecular Biology of the Cell
1998. 630 pages + appendices.
ISBN: 0-8153-2045-0 (hardback) or 0-8153-2971-7 (paperback).
Garland Publishing, Inc., 717 Fifth Avenue, New York City, New York 10022.

We Need More Biology Textbooks Like This One

David L. Jameson

Biology teachers who have kept up with their subject will welcome Essential Cell Biology as a beautifully structured text for use in high-school honors courses or advanced-placement courses.

Essential Cell Biology is an offspring of Molecular Biology of the Cell -- a fine upper-division college text, issued by the same publisher, which I reviewed in these pages last year. The two books, however, are aimed at different audiences. Molecular Biology of the Cell was developed for use by advanced college students specializing in biology or medicine, but Essential Cell Biology has been written at an introductory level. It is appropriate for bright high-school students, provided that they have already taken basic high-school courses in both biology and chemistry.

All the book's authors are scientists of some renown: Bruce Alberts (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), Julian Lewis (a senior scientist with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund), Martin Raff (a professor in the Biology Department at University College London), Keith Roberts (head of the Cell Biology Department at the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, England) and Peter Walter (director of the Cell Biology Program at the University of California, San Francisco).

In their preface, the authors tell us that their first attempt to create this book, by merely condensing Molecular Biology of the Cell, went awry:

An initial attempt to write an abbreviated version of [Molecular Biology of the Cell] by simple pruning proved futile. We painfully learned that writing an introductory text requires a new approach and that the clay must be thrown again.

In starting anew, the authors say, they have tried to retain an "emphasis on central concepts over facts." They have succeeded well. The principles (though not all the details) set out in Essential Cell Biology should be understood by every serious student of biology and by anyone who does biology for a living, from horticulturist to herpetologist to animal-breeder. These principles are presented in an exciting, appropriate style, and the scholarship in Essential Cell Biology is excellent throughout.

The first ten chapters cover cell chemistry, energy conversion, proteins, DNA, protein synthesis, chromosomes, and genetic variation. Many of the subheads within these chapters are the same as the ones seen in the corresponding chapters of good high-school textbooks. Essential Cell Biology offers a lot more detail than high-school textbooks do, but in a manner that is exhilarating rather than overwhelming. The authors do not overburden the student with nomenclature or with information about technology.

After the first ten chapters, the authors introduce the student to topics that most introductory textbooks fail to present well: membrane structure and function, intracellular structure and function, intercellular communication, and cell cycles. In Essential Cell Biology, the presentation of these topics is exciting and scientifically sound. There are no separate chapters on sex, differentiation, immunology or cancer, but the essential aspects of these topics are nicely integrated into the discussions of cell physiology, in a pedagogically satisfying way.

The book is unified by four underlying themes: integration, switches, movement, and evolution. Integration is emphasized when topics such as cell life cycles, morphology, biochemistry and the structure of proteins are related to the processes of translation and transcription. Regulatory switches are carefully explained as the authors tell how processes like protein synthesis, electron transport and the development of body plans are started or stopped, and how the rates of such processes are controlled. The theme of movement recurs in discussions of how membranes, vesicles, active-transport mechanisms and concentration gradients influence the movements of ions, energy, information and complex molecules within cells, and in explanations of how the structures of membranes, the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi bodies are related to protein synthesis. Evolution provides a context for expositions of transposons, mutations and selection.

The authors claim, in their preface, that the text in Essential Cell Biology "is as short and simple as we can make it." To test that assertion, I tried to rewrite several sections and to make them shorter and tighter. I succeeded, but my shortened versions read like dull research papers. It seems to me that the authors really have written as tightly as was possible, given the need to make their text bright and pleasing.

They also have succeeded in cutting their technical vocabulary to a minimum, and they have handled technical terms in careful, lucid ways. Moreover, the book's glossary shows the same care and thought that permeate the book as a whole. The glossary definitions are specific to the material presented in the book's text, and some of the definitions are illustrated. The writing of this glossary was not farmed out to some handy clerk; it was carried out by people who took the time to think about what they were doing.

Care and thought are evident, too, in the questions that appear in page-margins and at the ends of chapters. These questions expand on points presented in the text, develop new ideas, address misconceptions that often arise in students' minds, and provide students with opportunities to think for themselves. While answers to the questions are given at the back of the book, the emphasis is on thinking, not on repeating facts. Some answers are tentative or conditional, inviting the student to engage in further thought and speculation. Such questions are significant tools for learning. Students will be well served if the teacher assigns a chapter for reading, then leads a discussion based on the chapter's questions, the answers in the book, and answers developed by students.

A course based on Essential Cell Biology will allow students to understand, and prepare to participate in, the biology of the coming century. We need similar textbooks dealing with other realms of biology (such as physiology, microbiology and evolution), along with students and teachers who are equipped to use them.

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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