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The Processes of Life

The Processes of Life: An Introduction to Molecular Biology

Lawrence E. Hunter
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 316
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  • Book Info
    The Processes of Life
    Book Description:

    Recent research in molecular biology has produced a remarkably detailed understanding of how living things operate. Becoming conversant with the intricacies of molecular biology and its extensive technical vocabulary can be a challenge, though, as introductory materials often seem more like a barrier than an invitation to the study of life. This text offers a concise and accessible introduction to molecular biology, requiring no previous background in science, aimed at students and professionals in fields ranging from engineering to journalism--anyone who wants to get a foothold in this rapidly expanding field. It will be particularly useful for computer scientists exploring computational biology. A reader who has mastered the information in The Processes of Life is ready to move on to more complex material in almost any area of contemporary biology.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-25528-8
    Subjects: Chemistry, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. 1 In the Beginning . . .
    (pp. 1-18)

    Questions about the origin, functioning, and structures of living things have been pursued by nearly all cultures throughout history. The work of the last two generations has been particularly fruitful, producing a remarkably detailed understanding of how living things operate. This new understanding is grounded in physics and, especially, in chemistry. Insights into the molecules of life have clearly demonstrated how fundamentally ordinary materials can be alive in so many extraordinary ways.

    Becoming conversant with the intricacies of molecular biology and its extensive technical vocabulary appears a daunting prospect. Introductory textbooks typically run more than a thousand pages, and college...

  5. 2 Evolution
    (pp. 19-48)

    The process of evolution is the explanation for both the amazing diversity of creatures observed in the world and the equally amazing molecular commonalities shared among us all. How can that be? What is evolution?

    Evolution is one sort of process of change. Not all kinds of change are evolutionary: the geological growth and erosion of mountains is an example of change that is not evolutionary. Many kinds of change are evolutionary, and the following account touches on controversies about which particular account of evolution best describes the history of life on Earth. However, all of these evolutionary processes have...

  6. 3 A Little Bit of Chemistry
    (pp. 49-72)

    Evolution is the process of change that shaped living things into the organisms we see today. That process uses no special materials; life is composed of ordinary matter. The characteristics of that ordinary matter have a central role in the evolution of life. The laws of physics and chemistry determine what creatures can exist, determine the possible structures and functions that might be shaped by evolution. Before understanding molecular biology, one must understand something about molecules and the forces that act on them, that is, about chemistry.

    Chemistry is an enormous and complex topic, but fortunately only a little bit...

  7. 4 The Structure and Function of Bacteria
    (pp. 73-90)

    Bacteria, also sometimes called prokaryotes, are a good place to begin the study of molecular biology, since they have a relatively simple structure compared to other living things. They may be simple, but bacteria are by far the most reproductively successful creatures on Earth, now and throughout history.

    Of the total mass of all living things (the planetary biomass), more than half is bacteria. These creatures occupy just about every niche that can be imagined; they live in deep-sea oil deposits 20 miles beneath the surface of the earth, and high up in the last fringes of atmosphere bordering outer...

  8. 5 Biological Macromolecules
    (pp. 91-118)

    In bacteria, as in the rest of life, proteins and nucleic acids carry out most of the critical functions. Inheritance depends on DNA; metabolism relies on proteins . Proteins and nucleic acids, together called macromolecules because of their large size, are central to life. Their study is at the core of molecular biology.

    Although individual molecules each have their own structure and functions, mostly proteins work together in groups. The proteins that catalyzed the many reactions in the glycolysis pathway that turns sugar into ATP are one example of how a group of proteins can work together in a pathway....

  9. 6 Eukaryotes
    (pp. 119-138)

    As described in section 1.2, the most basic split in the tree of life is between bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes. Eukaryotes include all of the organisms most familiar to people. All plants and animals, and also the fungi (such as mushrooms and yeast), and many microscopic, single-celled organisms generically called protists are eukaryotes. Having covered the molecular biology of bacteria in chapter 4 (and having to omit much discussion of the archaea altogether), it is time to turn to the biology of the more familiar eukaryotes.

    Like bacteria, eukaryotic cells are enveloped in a membrane, do metabolic work in their...

  10. 7 Multicellular Organisms and Development
    (pp. 139-164)

    Armed with a sense of the biochemistry and cellular architecture of the eukaryote, it is now possible to consider the last major transition on the way to familiar plants and animals. These organisms are all multicellular, meaning their bodies are made up of anywhere from dozens to tens of trillions of cells.

    When bacteria have access to a good food supply, they can reproduce so well that a colony of them can become large enough to be visible to the naked eye. However, a bacterial colony is not a multicellular organism, even if it consists of a large number of...

  11. 8 Anatomy, Physiology, and Systems Biology
    (pp. 165-188)

    Knowledge of the structures and functions of the molecular components of life underpins the understanding of whole organisms. However, biological wholes have functional capacities that are not apparent in their disconnected parts. Assemblies can produce emergent properties, particularly if there are complex relationships among the parts or between the whole and its physical, chemical, and biological environment. For example, cardiomyocytes (heart cells) contract rhythmically. That property is not caused by some rhythm-generating molecular part, but instead emerges from the interplay of multiple ion channel proteins, time-varying ion concentrations inside and outside of the cell, and the role of those ions...

  12. 9 Disease and Its Treatment
    (pp. 189-214)

    All living things can get sick. Even bacteria can be infected by viruses that cause a loss of reproductive fitness, or even death. Organisms face a lifetime of damaging stresses, including injury, infection, malnutrition, and environmental toxins. To varying degrees organisms are able to adapt, and often recover from the damage inflicted. In addition to the immune response aimed at neutralizing invaders, organisms have a variety of mechanisms to stave off or repair the damaging effects of these stresses. Our endogenous responses can also be aided by external interventions, that is, by medicine.

    Advances in medicine, particularly over the last...

  13. 10 Molecular Biotechnology
    (pp. 215-240)

    The previous chapters describe the current state of knowledge in molecular biology. It is important to keep in mind that all science is provisional, and some of the statements made here may turn out to be wrong. Biology is in a particularly creative period now, with long-held ideas (e.g., eyes evolved independently multiple times) being overthrown by new data (conservation of the pax-6 eye morphogen across the metazoa) with startling frequency. In order to properly assess the evidence that supports current knowledge, it is important to understand its experimental underpinnings and the technology that makes the study of molecular biology...

  14. 11 Molecular Bioethics
    (pp. 241-252)

    Having completed a brief tour of the major concepts of molecular biology, from evolution and chemistry to molecular medicine and biotechnology, it is now important to consider the meaning and significance of that material in a broader context, that is, to consider issues of bioethics. Bioethics is the study of value (what is good or bad) and morality (what is right or wrong) in biology and medicine. Application of molecular biological knowledge raises new ethical questions, and may offer some new approaches in grappling with older issues. Of course, judgments regarding bioethical issues depend on the broader viewpoints and social...

  15. Glossary
    (pp. 253-284)
  16. Index
    (pp. 285-300)