Book Review

Christine Hassler

Scott F. Gilbert:
Developmental Biology. 9th Edition.

Hardcover: 711 pages
Publisher: Sinauer Associates, Inc.; Ninth edition (March 31, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0878933840
ISBN-13: 978-0878933846
Price: 59.00 EUR

Chimera and Other Oddities

Nice try, Mr Hamilton, but we don’t believe your theory of chimeric twins.

The growth and development of organisms is a thrilling thing, in theory as well as in reality. Just ask professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton.

Do you watch CSI: Crime Scene Investigation? No? Never mind. As an authentic scientist, you are unlikely to be enthralled by an exaggeratedly theatrical TV drama. But whatever you think about CSI, your Lab Times book reviewer remembers a catchy episode where the bad guy couldn’t be arrested because the DNA of his saliva was different from that of his sperm.

Pardon? One person, two genotypes? In fact, the guy turned out to be a human chimera, consisting of a mixture of cells from two different individuals. This can, rarely, happen during early individual development, when two embryos – twins – fuse into one.

An athlete’s lame excuse

Incidentally, this phenomenon was the lame excuse that Canadian professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton used in 2004 to explain the suspicious fact that someone else’s blood was in his veins. Clearly a fan of CSI, Hamilton defended himself by stating that he was a human chimera, a living one-person twin. His tactics backfired; the cycling federation didn’t believe him and he was banned from competitions for two years for doping himself. A short while ago it turned out that bad guy Hamilton had indeed taken illegal drugs throughout his career, but it is fairly certain that he isn’t a chimera.

These real life events bring us back to one of the most fascinating questions in biology: How does an embryo form from a single cell? Scott Gilbert’s textbook Developmental Biology is perfect for those who are interested in this question. A classic among the field’s introductory literature, it is now available as 9th, updated edition.

How do embryos form?

Gilbert, a professor at Swarthmore College (Philadelphia, USA) and Helsinki University, teaches undergraduates. He has written, revised and evolved this textbook since 1985, when the first edition came out. Although based on his lectures for undergrad students, Developmental Biology is a gem for readers at all scientific levels. It covers an enormous range of topics, goes into considerable depth – especially at the molecular level – and contains plenty of suggestions for further reading.

The book’s contents are structured into four parts, each beginning with an opening chapter that highlights the section’s key concepts. Part one introduces concepts of developmental biology and the field’s classic themes: embryology, genetics, and cell-cell signalling. The second part describes early developmental processes in various organisms, such as fertilisation, axis formation and gastrulation.

By the way, this is also where we can find interesting facts about human chimeras. Even for desperate athletes such as Hamilton, the section is an inspiring treasure.

New information about current topics

In the third and largest section we learn about germ layer development and organogenesis, with heavy emphasis on the role of stem cells. The book concludes with several chapters on the medical, ecological and evolutionary aspects of developmental bio­logy, which, admittedly, are made partly redundant by Gilbert’s other book, Ecological Developmental Biology.

Developmental Biology contains a lot of new information about current research topics, such as induced pluripotent stem cells and transdifferentiation (the direct conversion of one cell type into another, without the intermediate stage of a stem cell). The extent of substantial updates is reflected by close to 700 new references – new ones, mind you, the total number of citations is much, much higher. Several chapters have been streamlined, allowing this edition to retain its established dimensions of around 700 pages. And for the first time, this 9th edition of Developmental Biology contains a glossary – how did it do without one before?

Excellent storytelling

Although encyclopedic, this book is not simply a list of developmental biology facts. Gilbert is an excellent storyteller. He presents the gestalt of developmental biology as a whole, with its questions, history and future perspectives all beautifully interwoven with other scientific disciplines. In an elegant flowing, lucid, but never too casual style, he speaks directly to his reader, challenges him by asking questions, and invites him to become a fellow developmental bio­logist. The author’s affection for his field is obvious throughout the book, very honest and infectious.

This work is perfect for someone who is interested in developmental biology and wants to dig deep. Your Lab Times reviewer suspects that students hoping to cram facts for upcoming exams may find it too elaborate. But she does recommend this fantastic book to everybody, anyway.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013