Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology (manga) by Masaharu Takemura, Sakura, and Becom Co., Ltd.

Back when I wrote my post on The Stuff of Life, I said I'd be reading this, and I did. I'm not really sure how I feel about it, though. This is probably a subjective thing, but the artwork in The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology seems cleaner, prettier, and less cluttered-feeling than the artwork in The Stuff of Life. Both books are basically giant biology-related infodumps made more interesting with characters and plot. However, The Stuff of Life's plot, such as it is, is more interesting than this book's plot. Plus, this book's infodump nature is even more obvious than The Stuff of Life's.

I don't think I can bring myself to ask our Acquisitions Librarian to buy this, not even to advance my super sneaky "more graphic novels and manga in the library" agenda (an agenda which is now on the back, back burner, due to hideous budget cuts). It's pretty and contains lots of information, but there are a few things about it that put me off. I think we'll probably be fine with just The Stuff of Life, although I do still plan on checking out other No Starch Press manga guides.

By the way, I had wondered whether this should really be called manga, or if it was actually OEL (Original English Language) manga. Silly me, I should have checked the title page verso (cataloger-speak for the page after the title page) - it says it's a translation of the Japanese original, which was published in 2008.

Synopsis:

Ami and Rin are going to fail their molecular biology class, and it doesn't help that they don't even bother to attend class. Professor Moro (or Dr. Moro), who teaches the class, has had enough. If they want to pass the course, they have to take his special mandatory make-up classes, which will be held on Dr. Moro's private island. Happily for Rin and Ami, Dr. Moro is busy with...something, so they'll be spending most of their time with Marcus, his cute assistant. That doesn't mean Dr. Moro is entirely absent, however - he takes great delight in scaring everyone with his sudden virtual appearances via giant video screens and more.

Since Rin and Ami haven't been attending class, they don't really know much. Marcus starts things off by teaching them about cells - what they are, their different parts, the different kinds of cells, etc. Then he talks about proteins, amino acids, genes, and DNA. That leads into DNA replication, cell division, proteins, transcription, RNA, tRNA, recombinant DNA, transgenic animals, gene therapy, and more.

Although Rin and Ami occasionally have trouble with some concepts, it's not long before things begin to make sense. The make-up classes, which are taught primarily via Dr. Moro's amazing virtual reality machine, are fun. They get to travel through a cell membrane in order to see all the organelles inside the cell. They get to watch a simplified version of what happens when alcohol is broken down inside the liver - think Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers vs. Drinkzilla. Don't worry, that part's accompanied by a slightly more complex and less silly explanation, but the silly version is still fun. Anyway, Rin and Ami get to experience molecular biology in an entertaining and memorable way.

Near the end, they discover the true reason why Dr. Moro was never physically around for these make-up classes. It turns out that he has some kind of incurable disease (much like the beings in The Stuff of Life, actually) and is dying. His only hope is that future generations of molecular biologists will discover the cure for his condition. Because it's possible that any student taking his Molecular Biology 101 course might one day become the molecular biologist responsible for finding the cure, Dr. Moro doesn't want even a single student to fall through the cracks. Now, as Dr. Moro prepares to use a cold sleep machine that he invented to wait out the time until a cure is found, Rin and Ami both tearfully promise that they will become doctors and find a cure. And, years later, they do (make sure to flip past the index!).

Commentary:

(If my commentary includes any factual errors, please forgive me - it's been a while since my last biology class. Feel free to correct me in a comment.)

Although this book is much thicker than The Stuff of Life, it somehow manages to feel like it has less information.

For instance, when this book uses alcohol as an example of what a specific kind of cell, a liver cell, can do, there is never an explanation of the "why." It's been a while since my high school and college biology courses, but I remember one of my teachers making sure to mention (probably as part of her mission to keep us all from participating in underage drinking) that the body considers alcohol a poison, which is why it's broken down inside the liver, an organ which includes detoxification among its many functions.

Sometimes information is left out (perhaps because the author wanted to keep things simple?). The book explains that males have an X and a Y chromosome and females have two X chromosomes, but there's no mention of people who have more than two sex chromosomes. In fact, there's little mention of what can go "wrong" during cell division, and how such things are even possible.

Sometimes important information is left out. I believe that the book's detailed illustration of cell division shows only meiosis, since the chromosomes don't double and seem to just divide. I don't think there's any mention of the two types of cell division, other than the mention that sex cells are different. There's another detailed depiction of cell division that's different (autosomal cell division), but why it's different isn't explained or even noted.

The book doesn't seem to cover why people fear transgenic animals (or plants) very well, although it does note the controversy over them. It mentions personalized medicine (tailoring your medical treatment to your known risk of diseases based on your genes) and all the good things about it, but it doesn't adequately cover the concerns people have about it. It mentions that gene therapy doesn't often work well, but it doesn't explain why, and it still makes gene therapy sound like a miracle cure. While it's true that introductory works like this can't cover everything, in my opinion the author glosses over controversial topics a bit too much.

Overall, the book has lots of information, pretty artwork (although the highlights in people's hair annoyed me a little, since they were always just dots, no matter the lighting), and an actual index. Unfortunately, it seems to cover the pros of new discoveries and technologies better than the cons, and the infodumps were so bad in some places that it wasn't much different than having a textbook (rather than being a manga straight through, it would sometimes change into a primarily text format, with floating character heads in the margins to indicate who's talking). Plus, Dr. Moro is a bit of a selfish jerk - I mean, he's probably not the only guy in the world with this disease, but I bet he's the only one with a cryo machine.

Read-alikes:
  • The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (graphic novel) by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis - Those who'd like to try another fun and interesting take on some of the same topics covered in The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology might want to try this. I've only seen a few sample pages, but it looks like calling this a graphic novel might be a bit of a stretch - it seems to be composed of short and not necessarily related cartoons - so, unlike The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology, no plot. Still, the short comics look amusing and would make for a similarly relatively painless way to learn biology-related topics.
  • Genetics for Dummies (non-fiction book) by Tara Rodden Robinson - Those who liked that The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology is less intimidating than textbooks on similar topics but would like more information might want to try this.
  • The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (graphic novel) by Mark Schultz, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon - An alien from another planet visits our own in the hopes of discovering a way to cure a disease that is widespread on its own planet. In the process of trying to find a cure, it learns about things like pedigrees, genetic counselors, the various modes of inheritance, the Human Genome Project, the Cancer Genome Atlas, mutations, recombinant DNA technology, gene therapy, transgenic crops and animals, and cloning. Those who'd like another entertaining introduction to biology-related topics might want to try this.

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