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Biochemistry & Molecular Biology of Plants

This Is Not Your Father's Plant Biochem Textbook in Cell

Plants synthesize about 45,000 different natural products or secondary metabolites. In contrast to primary metabolites that are the molecules required by all organisms to carry on their basic life functions, secondary metabolites are usually restricted in their distribution to particular families, genera, or species. The functions of many of these compounds are still unknown. Other natural products are used in plant defenses against predators and pathogens. Some are volatile signals transmitted from plants under attack to their conspecific neighbors which respond by synthesizing their own chemical defenses. These ecological functions have profound effects on plant survival in the absence of movement and neurological processes. Humans have made use of natural plant products to kill one another by the use of curare-tipped arrows, and hemlock (Conium maculaturn) as a judicial poison for Socrates and others. But they have also used plant products beneficially as in the case of the anticancer drugs taxol and vinblastine. Humans long ago discovered the palliative properties of natural plant products such as aspirin, caffeine, nicotine, and the psychoactive drugs mescaline, tetrahydrocannabinol, and many others. All of this and much more you can learn from reading this book.

Biochemistry & Molecular Biology of Plants, edited by Bob Buchanan (a biochemist), Wilhelm Gruissem (a molecular biologist), and Russell Jones (a cell biologist), marks a new beginning in plant biology. Modeled much like the immensely successful Molecular Biology of the Gene and Molecular Biology of the Cell, it covers all of the important areas of plant biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology as well as much physiology, development, and plant interactions with other organisms and the environment. The great strength of this book is that it has integrated its three major components in each of the 24 chapters resulting in a comprehensive analysis of a multitude of specific topics. The book is arranged into 5 sections: Compartments, Cell Reproduction, Energy Flow, Metabolic and Developmental Integration, and Plant Environment and Agriculture.Within each section are several chapters, each written by some of the 53 international experts that the editors have assembled. Individual chapters have been extensively rewritten and edited so that the book as a whole has a uniform reading style. Subheadings are in the now familiar declarative sentence format that students appreciate. In addition to the text, each chapter contains a number of boxes that expand on specialized topics or explain specific technologies. A strength of the book is the abundant graphic material (which is also available separately on CD-ROM). There are about equal numbers of excellent halftone illustrations and really excellent diagrams, the latter in color and of great clarity. Indeed, the book recently won top prize in the category BOOKS in the Association Trends 2000 Publications Design Competition. Chapters end with a Further Reading section that focuses fairly heavily on recent review articles, and there is a final section, Sources and Credits, that identifies the provenance of each of the illustrations, a feature that I, as a teacher, found to be invaluable.

Where might improvements be made? First, I have always found biochemistry, at least as presented in most textbooks, to be more encyclopedic than analytical. In contrast to some other areas of biology, which may be concept heavy, biochemistry seems to be concept poor. So I would have appreciated an overview chapter of how the editors saw their field. If it's a jigsaw, how do the pieces fit together? A few years ago Richard Herbert in the Introduction to his book The Biosynthesis of Secondary Metabolites likened the intricate web of biochemical reactions that make up primary metabolism to a model railroad layout with the compounds being stations on the main lines. Secondary metabolism compounds are the termini of the railroad's branch lines that originate at these stations. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Arabidopsis genome contains more genes than those of C. elegans or Drosophila is the need for the additional enzymes required for synthesis of secondary metabolites. I would also have appreciated more plant names in the Index so that I could learn about particular aspects of their individual biologies. There are many plants named throughout the text, but few are referenced in the Index.

When I was a college student, plant molecular biology did not exist as a science, and plant biochemistry was taught as blandly as Botany (now generally renamed Plant Biology) in many Introductory Biology courses. But now all this has changed and plant biochemistry and molecular biology have moved into the center in the thinking and teaching of many biologists. This change has come about partly by the foresight of officers of NSF and USDA who lobbied for increased funding for these research areas. They recognized that the primitive state of plant biochemical knowledge would hinder the molecular approaches to modification of plant genomes that were coming in the near future. The shift into plant research of scientists who had been trained in microbial and Drosophila molecular genetics has also contributed to this change. The whole fields of plant biochemistry and molecular biology became energized, and increasing numbers of students flowed into the research labs. This book is a testimony to the magnitude of the change that has occurred in these fields in one lifetime. Whether you use it as a text or as a reference book, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology of Plants has set the standard for years to come.

Ian Sussex
Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut 06520

Reprinted from Cell, Vol. 105, 307-330, May 4, 2001, Copyright 2001 by Cell Press, with permission from Elsevier Science. ScienceDirectTM

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