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Friday, December 20, 2013

Principle of Biochemistry

In the beginning there was White, Handler, and Smith. (Biochemistry textbooks are almost never referred to by their titles, only by their authors. This point will be revisited shortly.) Then Mahler and Cordes provided competition. In 1970 (we are of course dealing in the distant mists of biochemical time), Lehninger appeared on the scene. It was considered by many to be the first “readable” biochemistry text and quickly became a popular staple in courses. Around the same time, as the inherent importance of biochemistry became obvious, textbooks started multiplying and getting larger. Biochemistry was in an impressive growth phase and authors felt the necessity to include the rapidly accumulating new information in their tomes without eliminating any of the old material.
This growth spurt of biochemistry and the accompanying texts soon resulted in a split of textbook style. Biochemistry was seen as crucial for most life science majors and even engineers needed to be enlightened. However, not all would need the rigorous approach presented by the early generations of texts. New books appeared where the title was now an issue. Volumes that were embossed with Outlines of …, Foundations in …, and Principles of … were aimed at the so-called non-majors sections of biochemistry. In 1982, Albert Lehninger decided that his original efforts had become too dense through two previous editions and opted for a third approach. He titled his new work Principles of Biochemistry but did not direct it toward non-majors. Rather, he saw the need for a book comprehensive enough for an attempt at complete coverage of the field, but not so in-depth that it could suffice as a graduate text. His new book would be designed for undergraduate biochemistry majors and others who needed a majors-level course.
This 4th edition of that newer Lehninger is the result of the evolution of this approach. Sadly, Albert Lehninger has not been around for recent editions but the book is wisely titled Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry. It still strives and, for the most part, succeeds in being a readable body of work. (On the other hand, it is something of an unfair criticism to say a text is unreadable. Very few will sit and read such a book like a novel. While students would gain the most from this approach—all texts endeavor for a coherent effort at tying biochemistry into a “big picture,” they are most likely to check out a specific section on a topic of misunderstanding, or, more likely, check out the index for the exact item in question.) Authors David Nelson and Michael Cox have built upon their previous edition to generate a smoothly flowing work.
Current users can rest assured that nothing drastic has been changed in style from the 3rd edition. However, there are important additions reflecting our still rapidly changing area of interest. Significant results from the Human Genome Project and other sequencing efforts are included. For example, ABC transporters in all organisms are now discussed. Genomics and proteomics are covered in a separate chapter, and new applications of methods such as atomic force microscopy are described. None of these new inclusions are forced in but seem to be blended nicely with existing material. Also blended in are new insights gained from structural determinations of complexes like bacterial RNA polymerase and large and small ribosomal subunits. The importance of structure in the understanding of biochemical principles was recognized early by Lehninger and is continued by the authors as shown by their inclusion of the Protein Data Bank identification code for each structure shown in the text. The authors have also greatly expanded their coverage of detailed reaction mechanisms.
Instructors should note that the much of the 3rd edition's initial four-chapter section on foundations of biochemistry has been combined and dispersed to other chapters. There is now one initial chapter called “The Foundations of Biochemistry” followed by one devoted to water. The cell biology information in the old chapter two has been placed in the context of other chapters and reduced in scope. Likewise, much of the chemistry found in the old chapter three has been placed in other locations. One presumes the authors have decided to recognize the fact that other courses in fundamentals of chemistry and organic chemistry should be prerequisites for a course using their text. These reductions and combinations are probably ways to get to the meat of the subject more quickly and keep the volume to a manageable size.
With any text of such scope, there are always small things that can be changed. For instance, the authors incorporated essentially intact their section on DNA fingerprinting from the older edition. This shows Southern blotting and RFLP analysis on autoradiograms. This method has long been supplanted by using PCR and capillary electrophoresis.
No modern text book would be complete without the accompanying flock of supplements and this one is no exception. There is a study guide and separate lecture notebook to make life easier for students, a set of transparencies (with bold writing for good projection characteristics) and two test banks to make life easier for the instructor, and a website with graphics and animations to make life easier for both. The website is linked to the appropriate site in the text with an icon of a mouse (computer, not mammalian).
There are too many good biochemistry text books in the market to allow any bad ones to survive. They will all cover essentially the same material in slightly different (and sometimes identical) ways. New editions are ways for books to incorporate new material and feedback from previous versions and it seems that Nelson and Cox have done both in an admirable fashion. This text should continue to please users of the older versions and continue the model that Lehninger himself established with his first efforts.
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