books book reviews

virology books

reviewed by T. Nelson

I 'm going to break my rule of finishing a book before reviewing it. Once the current epidemic is over, viruses will be boring again for most people, but at the moment they're a hot topic. During the pandemic, my online vendor delayed sending these books for weeks because their priority was providing survival supplies. But now people seem to have enough toilet paper and hand sanitizer to last a while, so they finally showed up all at once.

Whichever book you read, make sure it's as recent as possible. We've had huge advances in molecular biology in the past two decades. And the viruses of greatest interest at the moment (SARS-type viruses) were only identified recently. None of these books discuss SARS-CoV-2, but both cover SARS-CoV, and it's very similar.

Here's a quick summary.

Virology: Molecular Biology and Pathogenesis is an outstanding book if you have a molecular biology background, and it's concise at only 725 pages.

Principles of Virology, 4e is also excellent, but it's written at an undergraduate level. Make sure you get both volumes, as some places only sell Volume I.

Fundamental Virology, which continued to be called Fields Virology long after Bernard N Fields died in 1995 (3rd ed. reviewed here), is the best and the most encyclopedic. This expensive two-volume set continues to grow, from 1340 pages in 1996 to a gigantic 2664 pages in the 6th edition in 2013. The old edition had 65 pages on HSV (Herpes simplex virus), now increased to 76, and there are comparable chapters on other viruses, which makes it a great reference book. It now has multi-colored diagrams and it has a lot more structural biology than the others. But if you want to read it cover-to-cover, you better start now so you can finish it before the SARS-CoV-3, -4, -5, -6, and -7 pandemics are over—at which point it'll probably be up to the 7th or 8th edition and you'll have to start all over.

Medical Virology by White and Fenner sounds like it would be more clinical, but it's not—it's essentially the same stuff as the others. In fact, some of the illustrations in other textbooks are taken from this one. The latest 4th edition is from 1994, and it's now hopelessly out of date.

Also of note is Janeway's Immunobiology, 9e, by far the best book on the immune system (reviewed here).


Virology: Molecular Biology and Pathogenesis

by LC Norkin
ASM Press, 2010, 725 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

This one is in three sections:

  1. Introduction: viruses in general, bacteriophages, and a great summary of the immune system (although Norkin describes it backwards by telling us how the viruses evade it before telling us how it works.)
  2. Virus replication and pathogenesis: organized by virus families, e.g. reoviruses, picornaviruses, coronaviruses, etc.
  3. Retroviruses: HIV, AIDS

The chapter on coronaviruses is typical. Norkin puts a strong emphasis on the genetic organization and talks about the epidemiology and pathogenesis of all the viruses together, along with the unique features of the class. For instance, he explains why corona­viruses have such a high rate of mutation and why this creates problems. Then there's a brief description of the medical effects, followed by several pages each on specific viruses (in this case, SARS-CoV).

There are many boxes on specialized or side topics. Many talk about little-known heroes in virology, like Carlo Urbani, who helped prevent SARS from becoming an epidemic in Vietnam at the cost of his own life.

There is also some information on the structural biochemistry of viral proteins, but in general the emphasis is on the differences between ssDNA, dsDNA, ssRNA, and dsRNA viruses and how they're transcribed, how they propagate, and the functions of the proteins and enzymes in the virus.

This one will bring you to a level where you can read the scientific literature on the topic. Most importantly, it's a single-author textbook, so you don't have to wade through turgid lectures by somebody who's there solely because of their name recognition value.

may 25, 2020


Principles of Virology, 4e

by Flint, Racaniello, Rall, Skalka, Enquist
ASM Press, 2015, 574 pages (Vol. 1), 437 pages (Vol. 2)
reviewed by T. Nelson

This is a two-volume undergraduate-level textbook, suitable for readers who have taken general chemistry and biology. It has lots of multicolored diagrams. Much of the coverage would be familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory biochemistry course. It's still a respectable textbook, but because it's on a somewhat lower level than the others, the authors have to devote entire chapters to topics like synthesis of RNA from RNA templates.

Volume I covers viruses in general, structure and genetics of different classes and families of viruses, intracellular trafficking, protein synthesis, and processing of viral pre-mRNA. Volume II discusses epidemiology, the immune response, virulence, oncogenesis, HIV, vaccines, and antiviral drugs.

The writers assume that the reader has only a modest background, so the chapter on antiviral drugs has to tell the reader about screening and in silico drug design before getting to any medicinal chemistry. The chapter on HIV—a gigantic topic in virology—describes the proteins in the HIV virus, the course of infection, and how it attacks the CD4+ T cells. As with Norkin's book, there's relatively little structural biology, but many beautiful pathway diagrams showing where all the virus particles go in the cell. In general you get more pages with nicer pictures and more boxes but fewer facts.

That's not to say that this book is dull. It has lots of interesting facts. The biggest disadvantage is the “Discussion” boxes, like the one on Vol. II, page 50, where they criticize chicken pox parties, another useless box telling us what the Trojan horse was, and some dumb cartoons in a few other boxes.

may 25, 2020