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Illuminating life: how RNA, after a century in the shadows, emerged into the spotlight


Written by an accomplished scientist, teacher, and author, the new book will appeal not only to working RNA biologists but also to students and their teachers

COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. (July 26, 2011) – RNA is central to the molecular basis of life and to the origin of life itself. While its study has captivated the current generation of molecular biologists, many do not know the historical underpinnings of the field.

In a new book, RNA: Life’s Indispensable Molecule, James Darnell (The Rockefeller University) provides the first comprehensive account of the history of RNA research from the perspective of his own distinguished, 50-year career at the forefront of the field. The book has just been released by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

The story begins over 100 years ago, when science first turned its attention to biological macromolecules. Darnell describes how RNA was brought out of the shadows in the 1950s and 1960s with a series of momentous advances: the discovery of tRNA and the involvement of ribosomes in protein synthesis; early studies in gene regulation and the discovery of messenger RNA; and finally, the deciphering of the universal genetic code. He recounts how the field’s focus then shifted from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, making possible the discoveries of RNA processing, the characterization of RNA polymerases, and the identification of the first transcription factors in eukaryotes. And he explains how, in the early 1980s, there was the startling realization that RNA molecules could function as catalysts.

In later chapters, Darnell describes the development of our current understanding of transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulation and the abundance of proteins, epigenetic modifications, and short and long non-coding RNAs involved. He ends by discussing the role of RNA in initiating life on Earth and in the evolution of cells. Throughout, he conveys the intellectual context in which these questions first arose and explains how the key experiments were structured and answers obtained.

“[M]y aim in writing this book is to provide a supplement in historical form—both to the younger generation of scientists and teachers and through them to incoming students—that describes how we first learned some of the molecular fundamentals of biology,” writes Darnell. The book will also appeal to active investigators in RNA biology and science historians.

Darnell is an accomplished scientist, teacher, and textbook author. From the very beginning of his first lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Darnell, his students and postdocs have studied RNA, its synthesis, processing, and transcriptional regulation. He is a founding author, with Harvey Lodish and David Baltimore, of Molecular Cell Biology (W.H. Freeman), now in its sixth edition.

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About the book:
RNA: Life’s Indispensable Molecule (ISBN 978-1-936113-19-4) was written by James Darnell and published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. It is available in hardcover and is 416 pp. in length, with a trim size of 6” × 9”. For more information, see www.cshlpress.com/link/rnalife.htm.

About the author:
James E. Darnell, Jr., M.D. has been Vincent Astor Professor at The Rockefeller University since 1974. His career has included poliovirus research with Harry Eagle at the National Institutes of Health, research with François Jacob at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and academic appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Columbia University. He has mentored over 120 doctoral students and postdoctoral scientists. Darnell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous awards, including the 2003 National Medal of Science and the 2002 Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science. He is the coauthor, with S.E. Luria, of General Virology (Wiley) and the founding author with Harvey Lodish and David Baltimore of Molecular Cell Biology (W.H. Freeman), now in its sixth edition.

About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press:
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is an internationally renowned publisher of books, journals, and electronic media, located on Long Island, New York. Since 1933, it has furthered the advance and spread of scientific knowledge in all areas of genetics and molecular biology, including cancer biology, plant science, bioinformatics, and neurobiology. It is a division of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an innovator in life science research and the education of scientists, students, and the public. For more information, visit www.cshlpress.com.

Elizabeth Powers, Book Marketing and Sales Account Manager
powerse@cshl.edu ; 516-422-4101

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