by Ottoline Leyser and Stephen Day Blackwell Science (2003)241 pages. ISBN 0-86542-742-9 £29.50 (paperback)
The field of plant developmental genetics has expanded rapidly over the past ten years and, for those of us who teach the discipline, finding a core text has been challenging. Up until now, most texts have been written in the context of the plant life cycle and, as a consequence, even in the best cases,they quickly dated. If you want to learn about developmental processes underlying a particular stage in the life cycle, you need both new and `old'information. An alternative approach is to learn about mechanisms that underlie processes occurring throughout the life cycle of an organism. In this way, you can `pick and mix' topics of choice to obtain an overview of a subject. Particularly in information-intense fields, this is the most effective way to teach and learn.
Towards this goal, a new textbook by Ottoline Leyser and Stephen Day discusses plant development in the context of mechanisms. Using case studies to illustrate specific processes, the ten chapters progress from an introduction to flowering plants, through characteristics of plant development, axis formation, position- versus lineage-based information,environmental influences and the coordination of development to, finally, a comparison with animal development. Because of its format, the book is likely to stand the test of time better than its predecessors. However, the real test will be whether it can be used by teachers and students. As general biology courses broaden to encompass the information explosion in topics as diverse as cell biology and ecology, students are graduating with less-specialized knowledge. In my opinion, it would be difficult for undergraduate students on this type of course to have a solid enough foundation in botany, genetics and development to appreciate fully what this book has to offer. However, students on more-specialized courses, and graduate students in particular, will benefit from the format. For example, some of the case studies could easily have been used in more than one chapter and can thus be used to encourage students to see the broader application. On a more practical note, the figures are excellent in that they clearly convey quite complex information.
Has the book achieved what it set out to do? The authors aimed to provide a conceptual framework from which to build an understanding of the subject. To my mind, you first need an understanding of the subject to discuss and challenge the concepts put forward in the book. This is because the chapters are unified on the basis of developmental processes per se, rather than on processes that are unified by underlying genetic pathways. For example, the chapter describing axis formation in leaves and flowers discusses at least seven distinct genetic pathways. In the absence of previous knowledge of these pathways in the context of the plant life cycle, it is difficult to synthesize the information in a conceptual framework.
Could the original aim have been achieved? I don't think so. We simply do not yet know enough about the genetic pathways that underpin developmental processes in plants. Although evidence that similar pathways act to facilitate specific processes at different developmental stages is starting to emerge,there is certainly not enough information to fill a book. So, in summary, the authors have successfully provided an advanced text for students and researchers interested in the complexity of plant developmental processes.