Book Review

Fundamental Virology, 3rd ed.

Fields, Knipe, Howley, eds.
Lippincott-Raven, 1996, 1340 pp (28.5 x 22 x 5.8 cm)


Fundamental Virology is a shorter version of the more expensive, 2-volume Fields Virology, which is the standard reference work in virology. Indeed, the reader of Fundamental Virology is constantly referred to various sections of Fields Virology several times in almost every chapter.

The first half of the book discusses general features of viruses. These 14 chapters discuss virus taxonomy, structure, genetics, life cycle, and host immune responses. There are also specific chapters on plant viruses, baculoviruses, yeast viruses, and bacteriophages. Much of this, particularly the sections on structure and genetics, is also covered in traditional molecular biology courses, and those using this as a textbook for biochemistry students will probably want to skip over some of these chapters.

The second half of the book covers individual virus families, such as Orthomyxoviridae, which cause influenza, and Rhabdoviridae, which cause diseases like rabies. These chapters are pretty similar, giving a brief overview of the characteristics of the viruses, details of the viral genome and protein products, and details about the assembly and secondary and tertiary structure of the virus if known. There is also an additional chapter on prions, and a lengthy chapter on HIV. A few virus families that affect mainly livestock, such as Iridoviridae and Circoviridae, and Filoviridae, which are Biosafety Level 4 viruses and thus not very popular with investigators, are not covered in the second section. Clinical and public health aspects of viruses of interest to a medical practitioner are not discussed except in passing; thus, there is little information concerning the epidemiology, symptomatology, pathology, or treatments for any viruses. There is also little discussion of the possible uses of these viruses (for example, Herpesvirus and adenoviruses) as research tools or for gene therapy.

While the book concentrates on giving lots of facts (some chapters have over 800 references), it is clearly intended to be a textbook and studiously refrains from speculating about or even discussing areas that would be subjects for virus research.

With the conspicuous exception of Chapter 6, the book is mostly free of typographical errors, and is also written in a remarkably clear style, without the turgid prose and interminable sentences that are occasionally found in scientific writing. However, the first half of the book sometimes falls victim to "review paper syndrome", where the author, unable to derive any valid generalizations from the mass of conflicting, unrelated data, simply includes all of them as examples. This is particularly true in discussions of viral gene products. The result is writing that jumps randomly from one protein in one virus to some other protein in another, leaving the reader wondering whether there is any real pattern or whether it is all just so much "botany". Part of this may have just been a desire on my part to learn about specific viruses, however, and anyway these sections can be harmlessly skipped.

This would make an excellent text for a graduate-level virology course, or a good reference book for someone who is not a professional virologist, but, as I discovered empirically, it is not a good book to read while you are sick with a cold, as a book this size can be quite hazardous to read while you are lying in bed.

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