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RNA: Life's Indispensable Molecule

Subject Area(s):  Molecular BiologyGeneticsBiochemistryOrigin and Evolution of LifeHistory of Science

By James Darnell, The Rockefeller University

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© 2011 • 416 pp., illus., appendix, index
Hardcover •
ISBN  978-1-936113-19-4

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In RNA: Life’s Indispensable Molecule, Jim Darnell provides a comprehensive and captivating account of RNA research, illuminated by his own life-long and celebrated engagement in the field. Darnell describes how scientists unraveled fundamental questions about the biochemical and genetic importance of RNA—how mRNAs are generated and used to produce proteins, how noncoding and catalytic RNAs mediate key cellular processes, and how RNA molecules likely initiated life on Earth. With a scope extending from the early 20th century to the present day, and with the clarity expected from an accomplished textbook author, he conveys the intellectual context in which these questions first arose and explains how the key experiments were structured and answers obtained. The book is geared towards scientists from the graduate level on up, and will particularly appeal to active investigators in RNA biology, educators of molecular biology and biochemistry, and science historians.

About the Author

James E. Darnell, Jr., M.D. has been Vincent Astor Professor at The Rockefeller University since 1974. His career has included poliovirus research with Harry Eagle at the National Institutes of Health, research with François Jacob at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and academic appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Columbia University. He has mentored over 120 doctoral students and postdoctoral scientists. From the very beginning of his first lab at MIT, Darnell, his students and postdocs have studied RNA, its synthesis, processing, and transcriptional regulation.

Darnell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous awards, including the 2003 National Medal of Science and the 2002 Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science. He is the coauthor, with S.E. Luria, of General Virology (Wiley) and the founding author with Harvey Lodish and David Baltimore of Molecular Cell Biology


Author’s Note: Pursuing RNA for More Than 50 Years
1. The Dawn of Molecular Biology: History of Macromolecules before RNA
2. RNA Connects Genes and Proteins: Ribosomes, tRNA, and Messenger RNA
3. After mRNA: The Genetic Code, Translation, and the Biochemistry of Controlled RNA Synthesis in Bacteria
4. Gene Expression in Mammalian Cells: Discovery of RNA Processing, Genes in Pieces, and New RNA Chemistry
5. Controlling mRNA: The Cell’s Most Complicated Task
6. RNA and the Beginning of Life


review:  “At first blush, we would think anyone in the current...RNA science pantheon could write a book like this, but once one takes a look and sees the richness of erudition, the poignancy of detail, the measured nuances, and — most of all — his elegant writing, combined with the underlying perspective of history, I cannot think of anyone in our RNA community who could have done it more attractively. ...No one could have written the eukaryotic RNA story as well as Jim Darnell. ...This book...will not be supplanted by as glorious a book on RNA anytime soon.”

review:  “Darnell’s book on RNA is a masterpiece of scholarship. It deserves an exalted place on the bookshelf of every molecular biologist and biochemist — next to other classics like Watson’s Molecular Biology of the Gene, Kornberg’s DNA Replication, and Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation.
      —Joe Goldstein, UT Southwestern

review:  “Jim Darnell’s career in science covers the 60 or so years following the publication of the Watson-Crick structure of DNA. This remarkable book tells a story that parallels his career, dealing at the beginning with the prehistory of research on RNA, DNA, and proteins and then shifting into high gear with a detailed look at the history of bacterial messenger RNA and the author’s own specialty, the RNA of eukaryotic cells....Darnell is an experienced teacher and author of textbooks. His explanations of complex experiments are superb...”
      —The FASEB Journal

review:  “Darnell has been at the forefront of molecular biology throughout his illustrious career. He leaves no stone unturned in this comprehensive but clear text...The real value of this work, aside from its extraordinarily readable style, is that it covers the history of RNA biology from the early pioneers to the present....The text is supported by high-quality, highly informative figures....up-and-coming students and seasoned researchers alike will gain significant insight into this central field.”

review:  “In sum, Darnell has succeeded in writing an appealing and cogent account of the rise of RNA molecular biology and its continued centrality in research today. This is an excellent book that should be required reading for graduate students and more senior investigators alike.”

review:  “RNA: Life’s Indispensable Molecule allows undergraduates and graduate students alike to envision, grasp, appreciate and spark fascination of the historical evolution of the importance of RNA in the context of cellular and developmental biology. After reading this book, I have restructured my course for Harvard undergraduates and it’s now the only required reading outside primary literature.”
      —John Rinn, Harvard University

review:  “Darnell’s book is not only a bible but a lexicon. Every key experiment from the past seven decades that shaped current appreciation of the multiple roles of cellular RNA molecules is described with clarity in several succinct sentences....RNA: Life’s Indispensable Molecule should be required reading, as well as a handy desktop reference, for everyone charged with teaching gene expression on any level. It really does say it all.”
      —Joan A. Steitz in Science

review:  “Although we take the roles of RNA for granted, its history is not as well known as that of DNA. Perhaps it was long overdue for a stellar RNA researcher such as James Darnell to undertake such a challenge. The book he has written is as remarkable as his career....The highly detailed account along with a flawless sense of history, take the reader through a fascinating journey of several decades of discoveries and exciting findings in molecular biology. Darnell’s very personal style makes this book enjoyable...After reading more than 400 pages of text, I was not exhausted. This book should be mandatory reading for advanced undergraduates and graduate students in biology and biochemistry. Even newly minted doctoral recipients could benefit from reviewing some key experiments...”
      —CBE — Life Sciences Education

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