Since 1970, college students around the world have been learning the principles of biochemistry from a textbook originally authored by the late Albert Lester Lehninger, longtime faculty member at Johns Hopkins University (he earned his Ph.D. in physiological chemistry at the UW-Madison medical school). Although the book is titled Lehninger Principles Of Biochemistry, in fact, the last four of the book’s five editions have been authored by UW-Madison biochemistry professors David Nelson and Michael Cox. The fifth edition was just released.
Many of today’s established scientists remember spending long hours and late nights in their student days poring over the book they knew simply as “Lehninger.”
“This was truly the flagship text when I was a student,” recalls CALS Dean Molly Jahn.
After Lehninger died in 1986, the publishers asked Nelson to take it over. He’d long been interested in writing a textbook, but he didn’t want to take it on himself, so he convinced Cox to join him the project. Their first effort, the book’s second edition, came out in 1990.
“The field has changed tremendously since then, and so has the book,” says Nelson. It has gone from a two-color, rather uninteresting format to a typical modern text with terrific illustrations and molecular graphics. It’s much more user-friendly.
The stunning graphics are the work of two of the authors’ colleagues on campus, illustrators Jean-Yves Sgro, of the UW Center for Biotechnology, and H. Adam Steinberg of the Department of Biochemistry’s media lab.
Another big change is the book’s non-paper component. The first digital complement to the printed book came with the third edition in 2000, when a CD was distributed with the book and tutorials were posted online.
“It’s a new ballgame. Every textbook in science now has a website that does things you couldn’t do in a book, such as interactive illustrations, tutorials and citations to other resources. That makes it a much richer textbook. A lot of biochemistry is three-dimensional structure, and computers are perfect for showing that,” Nelson points out.
In addition to a full website, the new edition is being offered as an e-book. The electronic format also makes it possible for the publishers to market customized subsets of the chapters.
The digital component hasn’t created much more work for Nelson and Cox. The publishers have separate teams working on a problems manual, the CD, and the website.
With the new edition complete, the authors and illustrators will have more free time — for a while.
“I’ve already got a file for the sixth edition,” Nelson says. “But in reality, we get about a year to breathe deeply before we start in again. It gets more intense in the final year. It’s all done in our spare time. It doesn’t take up our days, but it certainly soaks up our evenings and weekends.”
“But I don’t mind that at all, because Mike and I have taught a course together, and when the book comes out, we have a lot of improvements that go into the course. And when we do the book, we’ve got a lot of ideas that we got from teaching the class. Teaching keeps you in touch with the students — what they need and don’t understand. It’s a very nice, complementary pair of activities.
Also complementary are the author’s working styles.
“Mike and I are good partners and good friends,” says Nelson. “Our styles are very compatible. That’s a rare, lucky circumstance.”