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Book review: A molecular view of the life and time of RNA

Posted by , on 8 December 2011

This book review originally appeared in Development. Ilan Davis reviews “Molecular Biology of RNA” (by David Elliot and Michael Ladomery).

Book info:
Molecular Biology of RNA By David Elliot, Michael Ladomery Oxford University Press (2010) 460 pages ISBN 978-0-19-928837-3 £34.99/$55 (paperback)

Following the discovery of the structure of DNA and during the early days of molecular biology, RNA was considered to be a less interesting cellular component to study than DNA. This was primarily because RNA was thought to be simply a molecular photocopy of the genetic blue print stored in DNA. But how things have changed! Since those early days, our understanding of the cellular roles of RNA has changed radically. RNA is now considered to be of central importance to both molecular biology and cellular function. Far from only containing genetic information, RNA is now regarded to have credible catalytic properties through the availability of its 2′-OH, a reactive group that replaces a non-reactive ‘O’ atom in DNA. Moreover, its catalytic roles include key functions in the most important molecular machines of the cell, such as the spliceosome and ribosome. In hindsight, it would perhaps not be so surprising if the RNA world hypothesis turned out to be correct. This hypothesis states that the first life forms on our planet were RNA-based simple cells in the pre-biotic soup. RNA is certainly a better candidate than either DNA or proteins for a self-replicating molecule that acts both as a template for, and that has the necessary catalytic machinery to perform, its own replication. Moreover, the discovery that most mRNAs are spliced, and the gradual uncovering of a breathtaking number of ways in which gene expression is regulated post-transcriptionally, have meant that the field of RNA has undergone rapid growth in the past few decades. This rapid growth has recently increased even further because of the discovery of RNA interference (RNAi), as well as the discovery that small RNAs, distinct from tRNA and snRNA, undergo processing to fulfil a range of cellular functions. These include the regulation of transposable element transposition by piRNAs, regulation of translation by microRNAs and still poorly explored large non-coding RNAs (ncRNA). Many of these ncRNAs have turned out to have important roles in development and during disease processes, such as cancer. Therefore, it is clear that all aspects of RNA molecular biology have now become central to our understanding of cell and developmental biology.

Despite the rapid growth and exciting discoveries made recently in the field of RNA, to my knowledge there has not been a comprehensive textbook for undergraduates and postgraduate students that focuses on the molecular biology of the cell from the perspective of RNA. Molecular Biology of RNA, by David Elliot and Michael Ladomery, now plugs this gap. This comprehensive textbook is pitched at just the right level and explains the concepts in sufficient detail to make them come to life without swamping the uninitiated with confusing information and jargon. The authors have to be congratulated on the comprehensive nature of the textbook, which means that even RNA aficionados will find useful information within its pages. At the same time, it is a relatively short tome (400 or so pages) and reasonably priced.

After introducing some important general principles of RNA structure, catalysis and RNA-binding proteins, the chapters of the book are structured according to the life cycle of an mRNA, starting with its birth in the nucleus, its splicing and processing and exit from the nucleus, and moving onto its subsequent cytoplasmic localisation, translation and degradation. These broad themes are broken down into more detailed concepts; for example, RNA processing is covered by chapters on co-transcriptional processing, splicing, alternative splicing, and splicing defects in development and disease. Nuclear exit is broken down into the processes of mRNA nucleocytoplasmic trafficking and ncRNA nucleocytoplasmic trafficking. It is clear that the authors have placed greater emphasis on nuclear events than on those in the cytoplasm. Although this makes the textbook a little unbalanced, it does mean that for anyone interested in nuclear events related to RNA, there is considerable detail. By contrast, for topics like mRNA localisation, the book offers a simplified overview to less experienced scientists, but lacks necessary details.

The book is well written, easy to follow and, on the whole, strikes a good balance between providing sufficient detail and providing a simplified description of complex concepts. The authors have succeeded in producing a volume that is very useful for both undergraduate and graduate students starting a research career in an RNA-related topic, as it includes a comprehensive glossary at the end of the book. The textbook will still be of value to more experienced researchers from other fields that wish to get a quick comprehensive introduction to RNA research or to get started with a particular subtopic, such as splicing or mRNA localisation, as each section has a well chosen set of references as an entry point to a field. When deciding whether to purchase the book, readers may wish to consider what else is available covering the topic of RNA. There are a number of other excellent textbooks that focus on methods used in the RNA field; for example, RNA Worlds: From Life’s Origins to Diversity in Gene Regulation. In general, these textbooks are more specialised, more expensive and appeal to more experienced researchers. This year has also seen the publication of RNA: Life’s Indispensable Molecule by James Darnell, which, like the textbook by Elliot and Ladomery, is also being sold at an affordable price and is also meant for young researchers at the beginning of their research careers. However, Darnell uses a very personal and subjective style to describe the history of RNA research – a very different approach from the systematic textbook description employed by Elliot and Ladomery in Molecular Biology of RNA.

Although Molecular Biology of RNA offers a good systematic introduction to RNA research, it is also important to consider the limitations of the book. The diagrams are perhaps a little too simplistic and would certainly have benefited from a more stylised approach and perhaps from being in colour. However, this may have pushed up the cost of the textbook. As mentioned earlier, perhaps most importantly, there is an over-representation of events in the nucleus, particularly splicing, at the expense of equivalent levels of detail on topics in the cytoplasm, such as mRNA localisation, translation and degradation. I am already looking forward to the next edition, in which these deficiencies can be addressed, perhaps at the expense of making the textbook a little longer and increasing its cost slightly.

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