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Present at the Flood

How Structural Molecular Biology Came About

Richard E. Dickerson

Publication Date - May 2005

ISBN: 9780878931682

307 pages
8.5 x 10.5 inches

In Stock

Retail Price to Students: $69.99

Chronicles a revolution in molecular biology


This book chronicles a revolution in molecular biology--the crucial 30 years (roughly between 1933 and 1963) during which our ideas about proteins and nucleic acids changed from those of formless, functionless organic chemicals into precisely structured molecular machines with specific biological purpose. Proteins evolved from being colloidal micelles or globules with no specific structure (or even sequence) into quite precisely structured molecular catalysts, carrier proteins, and information-sensing agents. Indeed, the very idea that the amino acids of a protein were linked in a specific order in long linear chains was not accepted initially. During this same time period, DNA changed from being a sterile repeating polymer of no particular function (the tetranucleotide hypothesis) into a double helix that serves as the archive of genetic information. Without this revolution, molecular biology would not exist today, and biochemistry itself would still be a collection of recipes and unconnected empirical observations about a cellular slime known vaguely as "protoplasm."

The book is unique in that it tells this story in its authors' own words, as found in reprints of 42 key scientific papers. It is organized into nine chapters:

1. Introduction (goals and methodology of the book)
2. Your Cells Are Not Micelles! (the demolition of the colloid theory of proteins)
3. Workers of the World, Cast Off Your Chains! (cyclol rings vs. polypeptide chains)
4. The Folding and Coiling of Polypeptide Chains (a-helices, ß-sheets, etc.)
5. The Race for the DNA Double Helix (including various triple-helix blunders)
6. How to Solve a Protein Structure (Max Perutz and isomorphous replacement)
7. High-Resolution Protein Structure Analysis (myoglobin and hemoglobin)
8. The Knowledge Explosion (early protein workshops and what came next)
9. Epilogue (what has happened to all the pioneers)

Chapters 2-7 are each followed by reprints of original papers (203 pages in all) that are discussed in the chapter. Each chapter begins with a list of the key publications (including the reprints) relevant to the topic at hand. The chapters themselves are commentaries that place the papers in context and provide explanatory diagrams. A chapter concludes with a reference list of other important papers that were not reprinted, a set of study questions, and the reprinted papers themselves. Answers to study questions appear at the end of the book.

Present at the Flood will be of interest to biochemistry and molecular biology graduate students, to scientists actively engaged in the field, and to anyone who is curious to know where this field that we call "molecular biology" came from.

About the Author(s)

Richard E. Dickerson is Professor Emeritus in the Molecular Biology Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles. It was 1957 when he received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Minnesota. His research (with William N. Lipscomb) involved the x-ray crystal structure analysis of inorganic molecules (boron hydrides). Postdoctoral work included fellowships at Leeds University, England (in the laboratory of Peter Wheatley of the Inorganic Chemistry Department) and Cambridge University. At Cambridge, in the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (under John C. Kendrew), he helped to solve the first protein structure, that of sperm whale myoglobin. Later, at Caltech (1963), Dr. Dickerson solved and compared the structures of cytochromes, electron-transport proteins from mammals, fish, and microorganisms, with the goal of understanding both how they functioned and how they had evolved from common precursor molecules. More recently, he began a study of the way in which base sequence affects the structure of a DNA double helix, and how specific DNA sequences are recognized by drugs and control molecules. His lab was the first to carry out a single-crystal x-ray structure analysis of a B-DNA helix. Having come into his own in its final years, Dr. Dickerson offers a unique perspective on the discoveries and personalities that contributed to the molecular biology "revolution."


"The book is obviously a labor of love; it is copiously illustrated and peppered with humor. The volume was prepared as a text for a course. However, beyond such course work, it is also warmly recommended for all structural chemists whether or not versed in crystallography, because it contains a wealth of information and instruction about the structure elucidation of biological macromolecules, about the history of the field, and--what is especially rare in scientific literature--it brings all this to the reader with a personal touch."--Istvan Hargittai, Struct Chem

"The book is particularly well-suited for classroom instruction. In fact, the text grew out of a graduate course in structural biology that Dickerson teaches at UCLA. His text provides most of the relevant literature in one convenient location and facilitates classroom discussion by including a set of focused conversation questions at the end of each chapter. It also provides a valuable introduction for non-structural biologists interested in the development of X-ray crystallography."--Scott A. Strobel, Structure

"The book will clearly serve its intended purpose as an outline for a graduate course on the origins and methods of structural molecular biology, but it is also highly recommended for its insights into the lives and thought processes of those who laid the foundations of the field."--Fred Eiserling, Journal of Structural Biology

"Dickerson has not only done a scholarly job of plotting a route through the scientific literature to reveal the key advances in structural molecular biology, he also introduces the experimental techniques (with many helpful diagrams) to explain X-ray diffraction and protein crystallography. The book provides the basis for a stimulating postgraduate course, or could be read by anyone who wants a better understanding of the 'giants' of 20th-century biology."--Linda A. Amos, The Quarterly Review of Biology

"A must for students of structural biology."--Richard A. Wing, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine

Table of Contents

    1. Introduction

    2. Your Cells Are Not Micelles!

    3. Workers of the World, Cast Off Your Chains!

    4. The Folding and Coiling of Polypeptide Chains

    5. The Race for the DNA Double Helix

    6. How to Solve a Protein Structure

    7. High-Resolution Protein Structure Analysis

    8. The Knowledge Explosion

    9. Epilogue

    Appendix 1. Pioneers of Structural Molecular Biology, 1933–1963

    Appendix 2. Highly Recommended Reading

    Appendix 3. Irving Geis, the Molecular Vesalius

    Answers to Questions

    Credits for the Key Papers


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