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The Inside Story: DNA to RNA to Protein.

The Inside Story: DNA to RNA to Protein. Jan Witkowski, editor. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2005, 382 pp., $29.00, paperback. ISBN 0-87969-750-4.


This series of forty retrospective articles, reprinted from Trends in Biochemical Science, harkens back to molecular biology in the pre-PCR (polymerase chain reaction) era--practically ancient history in molecular biology terms. Therefore, it is not a "how to" book that describes useful techniques or information for current applications, unless you are looking for information about how to perform two-dimensional paper chromatography. Rather, it offers historical accounts, often first-person descriptions, of many of the key discoveries relating to the central dogma of molecular biology as initially expounded by Francis Crick in 1958: "DNA makes RNA makes protein." This book is of potential interest for aficionados of the history of science, particularly relating to molecular biology, and selected chapters might be of value to scientists in training, or early in their career. Some of the chapters provide insights into the processes of scientific discovery, scientific competition and culture, and how new data and theories are rarely as simple and clear-cut at the time of discovery as they are in retrospect.

To this reader, individual chapters ranged from relatively tedious historical reviews to some very engaging first-person accounts by scientists who worked on these problems. The best insights are provided by scientists who were struggling with research problems as trainees or early in their careers. Several of these accounts are true gems, clearly presenting the problems in the context of the state of knowledge, technology, and competing hypotheses of earlier times (now mostly discarded and forgotten). These stories describe thought processes, false leads, competition and feuds between research groups and disciplines, personalities, and courses of investigation leading to discoveries. Several of the chapters provide "the inside story', as promised by the title; other chapters fall short of the mark. This may be one book where a reader might read only selected chapters, primarily those based on personal accounts of research.

There was considerable overlap and repetition among chapters. Was it really necessary to have two chapters about Albrecht Kossel, or Schrodinger's What Is Life? The book would have benefited from deletion of approximately one fourth of the chapters with repetitious content. Among the most tedious chapters were a couple of polemics about the importance of biochemistry to the development of molecular biology and whether the discovery of split genes and RNA splicing were revolutionary discoveries or merely important discoveries. The arguments hardly seem necessary.

The chapters are organized into several sections based on topic; this tended to break up any sense of chronologic continuity of events. Events would have been easier to follow if they had been presented more in chronologic order and if an overall timeline had been provided as an introduction. Although this book contains many fine individual stories, in toto the book provides a disjointed overall historical view of discoveries that are the foundation for the discipline of molecular biology. Maybe, however, this is how history actually happens, and simple, logical accounts of scientific progress are, usually, the products of retrospective imagination and synthesis.

Glen L. Hortin

Warren Magnusson Clinical Center

National Institutes of Health

Bethesda, MD 21704

DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2005.057992
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Association for Clinical Chemistry, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Hortin, Glen L.
Publication:Clinical Chemistry
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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