By the book

March 3, 2004

Tags: Lodish LabWeinberg Lab

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the late 1970s, Harvey Lodish co-taught the very first cell biology class at Massachusetts Institute of Technology—a course that existed in very few universities. As a result, he was in the bothersome position of having to teach without a text.

Molecular cell biology, the subject of Lodish’s fledgling course, fused classical cell biology, genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry. But unlike earlier cell biology classes, for which the microscope was the primary tool, this one focused on new research that allowed biologists to study the roles that DNA, RNA, membranes and proteins play in mammalian cells. As a result, the course combined instruction in many areas of the life sciences that traditionally had been segregated from one another.

“It was a new science,” Lodish says, “but there were no books.”

But eventually, Lodish’s frustration led to action, and the result was one of the more successful textbooks in the $100-million industry of life sciences texts. If there is a “secret sauce” behind the success of the book—Molecular Cell Biology—the recipe includes a passion for science—and a passion for teaching.

Building a Text

The decision to tackle a first-of-its-kind textbook was one that came gradually. Around the time that Lodish was preparing and modifying his class notes, a friend of his, James Darnell of Rockefeller University, began to assemble a molecular biology textbook. Darnell recruited one of his colleagues, former student David Baltimore, and asked him to author a few cell biology chapters. Baltimore began the job, but soon was sidetracked by another project—helping to establish a new science institute called Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, of which Lodish would become a Founding Member.

In the fall of 1981, Darnell asked Lodish to review the preliminary materials he and Baltimore had put together. “Some of the stuff was on the right track, but other areas needed to be completely redone,” says Lodish. “I liked the idea, and I knew that if we wanted to pull it off, we’d need to start from scratch.” At the same time Darnell and Lodish added several introductory chapters that enable the book to be used by students who have not yet taken courses in biochemistry or molecular biology.

The first edition, authored by Darnell, Lodish and Baltimore, was published in 1986, but it wasn’t until the second edition in 1990 that the book began to hit its stride. By the third edition in 1995, Lodish had become the lead author and recruited several new coauthors for the project, including Whitehead colleague Paul Matsudaira.

It Takes a Teacher

Now in its fifth edition, Molecular Cell Biology, which is published by W.H. Freeman, is co-authored by Lodish and Matsudaira from Whitehead, Arnold Berk of UCLA, Chris Kaiser and Monty Krieger of MIT, Matthew Scott of Stanford University School of Medicine, S. Lawrence Zipursky of UCLA and James Darnell of Rockefeller. Contributing to such a textbook is central to the mission that drives most scientists-teachers, Matsudaira says.

“I don’t think that you can engage in this sort of project unless you have in your heart a desire to teach,” he reflects.

To write a textbook, Matsudaira adds, you must know not only the basic concepts and facts, but also how that information fits into the larger picture of biology. “When I finish writing chapters of the textbook,” he says, “it feels like I’ve really become an expert in that area. I’ve had to filter out what is and what isn’t relevant and decide how I’m going to fit this all together—in a concise number of words.”

Every author on Lodish’s book teaches biology either at the undergraduate or graduate level, something that Lodish believes is critical. “We consider research and teaching as something that we all do,” says Lodish. “It’s important that the authors are all teachers, because teaching broadens you in essential ways that help your research.”

One example of this emphasis on pedagogy is the text’s use of experiments. According to Sara Tenny, publisher of life sciences at Freeman, “The authors have placed a priority on explaining the experimental techniques and actual experiments behind their assertions. It’s not the strict didactic approach you see in most textbooks. This makes it far more interesting.”

Writing Redux

Today, Whitehead Founding Member Robert Weinberg finds himself in the same position that Lodish did over 20 years ago. In 1999, Garland Publishing asked the cancer researcher to author the first-ever textbook solely devoted to cancer biology.

“There has never been a book that teaches students about the basic molecular biology, genetics and cell biology of cancer development,” says Weinberg. “As a result, I have no template to follow. It’s turned out to be an enormous amount of work.”

It might seem strange that it’s taken so long to produce this text, considering that Richard Nixon’s declaration of war against these renegade cells is over 30 years old, not to mention the untold billions of dollars that have been spent on cancer research. But according to Weinberg, it hasn’t been possible to write such a tome until now.

“The field has been in enormous flux and hasn’t been in the place where you sit down and write a text,” he says. “For the first time, there’s finally a small and limited set of principles that we can hang our hats on.”

As was the case with the authors of Molecular Cell Biology, the impetus for Weinberg’s upcoming bookscheduled to be published in fall 2004, was an introductory course on cancer biology that he’s taught for years at MIT.

Part of the excitement—and challenge—for anyone writing a biology text today is that large sections of the book become obsolete very quickly, forcing the authors to constantly think ahead to the next edition. Even though the next edition of Molecular Cell Biology won’t be due for another four years, Matsudaira already is thinking about how he’ll redesign his chapters on the cytoskeleton. The field of cancer research also continues to advance, due in part to new studies in Weinberg’s lab.

“Writing this book is like aiming at a moving target,” Weinberg says. But it’s clearly a target worth hitting.

Written by David Cameron.

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