Molecular Biology of the Cell* and Molecular Biology of the Cell: A Problems Approach, By Tim Hunt and John Wilson Inspire article

The success of an academic discipline has a lot to do with the attractiveness of its founding ideas and discoveries. These in turn reach the next generation of practitioners through textbooks.

Three years after the completion of the Human Genome Project, it is safe to say that molecular cell biology is a success story. The fourth edition of its premiere textbook, Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBoC), has been out for some time now (it was published in 2002), but it is still well worth drawing attention to this marvellous teaching device.

What is your favourite discovery in molecular biology since you last studied the subject at school or university? My list includes the realisation in the late 1990s that non-coding RNA plays a central role in cell regulation, the high-resolution 3D structure of ribosomes in 2001, and the first draft of the sequence of the human genome in 2001. All three topics are dealt with in MBoC. In fact, genomics is treated in several places, starting on the cover, which shows a portion of the human genome sequence.

Apart from its comprehensiveness, MBoC is crammed with attractive illustrations embedded in clear and carefully paced explanatory prose. This feature makes the book useful for readers with diverse levels of proficiency. For example, the panels summarising the chemical constituents of cells are useful for students preparing for university entry exams, whereas the chapter on cancer contains a lot of material that will be news to all but the experts in the field.

All of this richness is distributed over four parts containing 25 chapters and adds up to a tome comprising substantially more than 1,500 pages. If you find books of this size too heavy to carry, let alone read, fear not, for you can turn to the abridged version of MBoC, published as Essential Cell Biology by the same team of authors as the parent volume.

There is a strange paradox about good textbooks, however. The easier they make it for the reader to assimilate complex new ideas, the more they distort the process by which the discoveries presented on their glossy pages were actually made. And it is this process of discovery, which is usually nothing but anarchic, that is at the heart of the attraction of the natural sciences.

For this reason, Tim Hunt (2001 Nobel laureate) and John Wilson have written a companion book to MBoC: Molecular Biology of the Cell: A Problems Approach. The book consists of 1,389 problems supplementing chapters 1-8 and 10-18 of MBoC. In addition, it contains detailed answers to half of the problems; the answers to the other half are available to instructors from the publisher without fuss. As Hunt and Wilson write, their problems can be read as a “running commentary on MBoC”. They range from simple true/false questions to concise presentations of the decisive data contained in classical research papers. An example of a typical true/false statement is “Since introns are largely genetic ‘junk’, they do not have to be removed precisely.” As to research, the beautiful experiment by Meselson and Stahl published in 1958, which established the semi-conservative nature of DNA replication, serves as the basis for several problems. In addition, there are also a large number of problems designed to test the reader’s ability to perform the kind of order of magnitude estimations expected of working cell biologists. For example, how long are the DNA molecules contained in the nucleus of a single human cell? (Answer: roughly 2 m.) Such computations are never mathematically challenging, but always biologically illuminating.

MBoC is a prime example of what a good textbook in the biological sciences should be: comprehensive, vivid and up-to-date. However, it is Wilson and Hunt’s companion volume that makes MBoC truly special. Whether you are looking for interesting class problems or just wish to test your own understanding of cell biology, The Problems Approach is the closest you can get to experiencing the excitement of research without exchanging the safety of your armchair for the vagaries of the laboratory.


Molecular Biology of the Cell

Publisher: Garland Science
Publication year: 2002
ISBN: 9780815340720

Molecular Biology of the Cell: A Problems Approach

Publisher: Garland Science
Publication year: 2002
ISBN: 9780815335771


Download this article as a PDF