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A Genetic Switch, Third Edition

Subject Areas: Cell Biology; Genetics and Genome Science; Cancer and Oncogenes; Molecular Biology; Developmental Biology; Biochemistry

By: Mark Ptashne, Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center, New York

View Figures: figures from A Genetic Switch, 3rd ed.

Additional Material:
A Genetic Switch, Lecture Series by Mark Ptashne

A Genetic Switch
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The first edition of Mark Ptashne's 1986 book describing the principles of gene regulation in phage lambda became a classic in both content and form, setting a standard of clarity and precise prose that has rarely been bettered. This edition is a reprint of the original text, together with a new chapter updating the story to 2004. Among the striking new developments are recent findings on long–range interactions between proteins bound to widely separated sites on the phage genome, and a detailed description of how gene activation works.

review:  “Ptashne's clear and concise articulation of the essential scientific and experimental issues makes the book an ideal introductory text for the increasing number of interdisciplinary scientists moving into systems biology. More importantly, the detailed studies (summarized in these chapters) that relate properties of the molecular components to the function of the switch establish a high standard for the systems biology of more complex organisms.”

review:  “The clarity and care of ‘A Genetic Switch’ and its organization is a paradigm for communicating the structure and behavior of complex regulatory systems such as lambda. Periodic update of a book like this is important as a reminder of the level of our understanding of a system, in this case lambda, and of how we achieved that understanding.

‘A Genetic Switch’ is wonderful for what it is—a beautiful, concise (only 154 pages) exposition of the major molecular processes involved in lambda's lysis–lysogeny and induction decisions...The 3rd edition of ‘A Genetic Switch’ prompts us to remember the power of this under–utilized model system in discovering general principles of cellular function and behavior. Switch back!”
      —Current Biology

review:  “I enjoyed the book and have no major quibbles. The author has a talent for simplifying (but not oversimplifying) complicated ideas, he describes the theory and its experimental basis in a straightforward and plainspoken way, and he illustrates his points with drawings that contain just the right amount of detail. Connoisseurs will appreciate the new chapter on recent developments, in which some parts of the original picture are redrawn and others filled in...
I strongly recommend the new edition of A Genetic Switch to students of molecular biology from the advanced undergraduate level up. The author and publisher are to be commended for supplying this volume at such a reasonable price.”
      —The Quarterly Review of Biology

review:  Mark Ptashne's classic monograph, The Genetic Switch (1st Ed., 1986), was a uniquely elegant description of a major milestone in molecular genetics—the elucidation of the mechanism by which the temperate E. coli phage λ “chooses” between two developmental pathways, lysogeny (integration of a repressed prophage into the host chromosome) and lytic phage production. The 3rd edition describes more recent data that bring the book up–to–date and reemphasize λ's extraordinary usefulness in understanding how simple genetic elements can interact to regulate complex developmental processes...

This book is a remarkably vivid account of the triumphs of λ phage genetics and molecular biology. Ptashne's own research contributions to the story are substantial. His research and The Genetic Switch are both characterized by an insistence on asking and pursuing critical questions until an unusual experimental observation is completely understood, often resulting in unexpected new insights...

This current edition of The Genetic Switch is compelling both because of the new information it contains and because the lessons of the 1986 version are timeless. Undergraduates, computer–modelers, bioinformaticians, bacterial pathologists, teachers, recombinant DNA technologists, developmental biologists, and even experienced lambdologists should be inspired by The Genetic Switch; some will want to teach from it, and all will learn from it.

Mark Ptashne is the Ludwig Professor of Molecular Biology at the Sloan-Kettering Institute, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and a Professor at Cornell University, both in New York City.

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