By Andreas Bresinsky Christian Körner, Joachim W. Kadereit Gunther Neuhaus and Uwe Sonnewald. Springer, 2013
One of my first botany memories was buying a second-hand copy of Strasburger’s Lehrbuch der Botanik – in German – and marvelling at the many images that illustrated that weighty tome. Attempts to translate passages of interest were painfully slow with my elementary science German, so I never managed to appreciate the text of that textbook. Whether that experience influenced me towards a career in botany we’ll probably never know, but it certainly left a lasting impression.
Eduard Strasburger – that book’s eponymous originator – was a Polish-German botanist and one of the most notable plant scientists of the 19th century. Amongst his many botanical achievements – which ranged from sexual reproduction to the ascent of sap – he is widely considered to be the founder of modern plant cell biology (Volkmann et al., 2012). However, one of his most enduring legacies is the textbook that still bears his name over 100 years since his death in 1912. As the present book’s Preface advises, Strasburger’s Lehrbuch der Botanik für Hochschulen was first published in 1894, and has “greatly influenced university teaching in Germany and neighboring [US English prevails throughout the text] countries, and its 36 editions also mirror the dynamic history of the plant sciences”. Although still published under Eduard Strasburger’s name, it has always been a “multi-author effort, and Strasburger himself invited his colleagues at the Botanical Institute of Bonn University as contributors to the first edition.” Having had my attempts to penetrate the German version of this iconic textbook thwarted, the opportunity to review an English language edition was one I didn’t want to pass up.
In keeping with Strasburger’s multi-author vision for the book (which is probably more in the nature of a project that has evolved since its authorship has changed several times during its 120-year existence), the present 1,302 paged text [hereafter referred to as Strasburger 2013] containing 1158 illustrations over two volumes is divided into four parts, each a reflection of the breadth of knowledge and interests of the author(s) responsible for their compilation. Thus, in Volume 1 we have Part I Structure by Gunther Neuhaus with four chapters entitled, Molecular Basics: The Building Blocks of Cells; The Structure and Ultrastructure of the Cell; The Tissues of Vascular Plants; and Morphology and Anatomy of Vascular Plants. Part II Physiology by Uwe Sonnewald covers Physiology of Metabolism; of Development; of Movement; and Allelophysiology [“the diversity of physiological relationships that plants have with other organisms” – p. 9 of Introduction]. Volume 2’s sections are Part III Evolution and Systematics co-authored by Joachim W. Kadereit and Andreas Bresinsky, with chapters on Evolution; and Systematics and Phylogeny. Finally, Part IV Ecology by Christian Körner, whose four chapters cover: Basics of Plant Ecology; Plant–Environment Interactions; Ecology of Populations and Vegetation; and Vegetation of the Earth. The second volume concludes with a Timeline, Sources [References] [which supplement further reading associated with individual chapters], and the Index. The first volume commences with a 10-page Introduction which considers such notions as what Botany is, what is life?, the special position of Biology, and classification and significance of plant sciences. Scattered throughout both volumes are 34 ‘Boxes’ [which provide more specialist information on such concepts as “Cell fractionation”, “Types of stele”, “Important units in photobiology”, “Thale cress: Arabidopsis thaliana”, and “Effects of CO2 on plant growth”], and 14 ‘Topical Insights’ [presumably the “additional contributions by renowned experts in the field” per the publisher’s flyer, and which range from Christophe Benning’s “Galactolipids and membrane remodelling” to “Forest structure and gap models” by Hank Shugart via “The origin and early evolution of flowers” by Peter Endress and James Doyle and “Leaf nitrogen: A key to photosynthetic performance” by John Evans].
I’ve reviewed several English language plant biology/botany texts over the years and in my view Strasburger 2013 is probably unique. For example, it takes a rather broad interpretation of the subject matter of plant sciences (yes, I note the use of this binomial rather than the term ‘botany’ in its German antecedants) to include algae (which is reasonable since green algal ancestors are probably progenitors of the true Kingdom Plantae), fungi, and prokaryotes. Whilst inclusion of eukaryotic fungi may also be considered reasonable in a botany text (they are not animals and are plant-like in some respects…), incorporation of prokaryotes is unexpected; although these organisms feature mainly in the Evolution and Systematics part of Strasburger 2013. Wisely anticipating that concern, the book admirably defends its stance in the Preface thus, “The inclusion of bacteria, archaea, and the various lineages referred to as fungi may not be justified from a phylogenetic perspective when dealing with plants, but is necessary considering the important evolutionary and ecological interactions between plants and these organisms”. I can’t argue with that.
Part I’s Structure and Ultrastructure of the Cell is a comprehensive section which is reminiscent of Gunning (2009) (but with coverage here of cell walls!). And both The Tissues of Vascular Plants, and Morphology and Anatomy of Vascular Plants chapters could give Esau’s Plant Anatomy: Meristems, Cells, and Tissues of the Plant Body (Evert, 2006) a good run for its money, and incorporate more detail than is common in competing general plant science texts e.g. Raven Plant Biology (Evert and Eichhorn, 2012) and Botany: An introduction to Plant Biology (Mauseth, 2014). Part II Physiology compares favourably with Plant Physiology (Taiz and Zeiger, 2010) and with the likes of Physiological Plant Ecology (Larcher, 2003) or Plant Physiological Ecology (Lambers et al., 2008). Part III’s systematics section is a substantial contribution extending from prokaryotes to the Plant Kingdom, and its angiosperm section alone is reminiscent of Judd et al. (2007). But, and intriguingly, the term Kingdom is used in place of the more usual (and more widely understood?) term Domain. Hence, Strasburger 2013 talks of 3 Kingdoms (Domains) (e.g. p. 680), which would probably confuse those of us who are used to viewing the living world as consisting of 5 kingdoms but subsumed within three Domains. And chapters in Part IV’s substantial ecology section also bear comparison with the texts of Larcher (2003) and Lambers et al. (2008), whilst the Vegetation of the Earth chapter is a near-encyclopaedic compendium of coloured photographic images of the planet’s varied habitats.
However, throughout the tome there is no great emphasis on molecular biology – in the sense of relating developmental or physiological phenomena to the genes implicated therein, so Strasburger 2013 is no competition for the likes of Plant Biology (Smith et al., 2010) or The Molecular Life of Plants (Jones et al., 2013) (nor even Taiz and Zeiger (2010) or Evert and Eichhorn (2013) in this respect). Although, Strasburger 2013’s scope is broader than the former three of those four texts, this seems to be a serious omission at worst; a missed opportunity at best. It is undeniable that the molecular-genetic dimension is an important – essential, indeed – component of our modern day understanding of plant biological processes and phenomena, especially at the sub-cellular and biochemical/physiological level, which are a major focus of Parts I and II. In this respect Strasburger 2013 probably doesn’t fully “mirror the dynamic history of the plant sciences” (2nd paragraph of Preface), and is therefore a little out of step with some of its major English-language textbook competitors. But, how serious a deficiency this will be viewed by potential readers of Strasburger 2013 will depend on what they want from a botany – sorry, plant science – textbook (and how happy they will be to pay £449.50 for this idiosyncratic text).
An interesting inclusion in Strasburger 2013 is the 3.5 pages of ‘Timeline’ [“a selection of important contributions to Plant Sciences (Botany) from their origins up to the year 2000”], which extends from Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants of c. 300 BCE to the end of the second millennium CE’s sequencing of Arabidopsis thaliana‘s genome by The Arabidopsis Genome Initiative. But why does stop at 2000? For a book published in 2013 you’d expect at least some mention of 13 year’s additional noteworthy botanical achievements post-2000 (they do exist). Or, at least, to extend the timeline until 2008, the year of publication of Strasburger’s 36th German language edition upon which Strasburger 2013 is based.
The 14 Topical Insights are a nice touch. Scattered throughout, but integrated within, the book’s 14 chapters (but, no, not one per chapter!), they reflect a similar development one has witnessed more generally in plant biology textbooks in recent years. In all cases they are an attempt to promote that all-important topicality that helps to ensure the book has that ‘cutting-edge’ feel and is appropriately up-to-date (which should ensure that it is recommended, bought and hopefully read). It was therefore good to read about scientists other than the books’ co-authors, and on a range of interesting and relevant topics. One that caught my eye was Todd Dawson’s contribution entitled “From where do plants take their water?” which examined the use of stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in water in plant physiology/ecology. Because the ratios of the different isotopes vary in water molecules from different sources, and are in turn reflected in the isotopic composition of water within the plant, this approach can be used to determine which sources of water plants actually exploit in the environment. Although published too late for inclusion in Strasburger 2013, that piece seems to anticipate Palacio et al. (2014)’s revelation that certain plants use the water of crystallisation associated with the mineral gypsum as a major source of water. How insightful and topical is that!
The impressive 30 pages of 3-columned Index extends from the curiously spelt – and therefore alphabetically misplaced – “Aacetate [sic.]-malonate pathway” and “Aautotrophy [sic.]” to” Zygotene” and “Zygotic embryo”, and has entries listed under every letter of the alphabet. However, I found no mention in the index – which presumably also means no inclusion and coverage within the text* – of strigolactones [“chemical signals for fungal symbionts and parasitic weeds in plant roots” – Akiyama and Hayashi, 2006]. In view of Strasburger 2013’s inclusion of Fungi within its pages to emphasise allelophysiology, this omission is unexpected, and arguably difficult to defend (and incidentally impacts upon one’s view of the up-to-dateness of the 36th German edition of Strasburger…). Surprisingly also, since Strasburger 2013 features William Bond’s Topical Insight entitled “A world without fire”, and in view of the book’s strong ecophysiological dimension, the Index has no entry for karrikins (and which are presumably therefore not covered within the text*). Karrikins are “a group of plant growth regulators of the butenolide class found in the smoke of burning plant material”. They are therefore compounds which have considerable plant science interest and ecological significance, and – one would have thought – are ideal for inclusion in Strasburger 2013. But, and before this is challenged by those who – rightly – state that these compounds weren’t named karrikins (e.g. Chiwocha et al., 2009) until after the 2008 publication date of the 36th German edition of Strasburger upon which this English translation is based, their omission from this English edition is still an issue because it is quite clear that Strasburger 2013 is not constrained by that 2008 date. Supporting that view is Bond’s own Topical Insight which cites references from 2008, 2009, and 2010 (and e.g. Körner’s chapter 14 in Strasburger 2013’s main text includes several 2011 and 2012-published references). Which accords with the Publisher’s statement that Strasburger 2013 is based upon, and not a direct translation of, the 2008 German edition. With more optimism I also searched the Index for forisome(s), ATP-independent contractile proteins in the sieve elements of some plants (which are exciting interest because of their potential exploitation as a so-called biomimetic ‘smart material’). These sub-cellular structures were named shortly after the start of the current millennium by Knoblauch et al. (2003), and so well before the all-important year of 2008. Sadly, that term was not found either (and which presumably also indicates that any mention thereof is absent from Strasburger 2013’s main text*). What this comparatively simplistic scrutiny of the Index reveals is that, although some attempts to include more up-to-date references than the 2008 German Strasburger edition permitted have taken place (and which are laudable), and notwithstanding the inclusion of the Topical Insights with some post-2008 references, one should not infer that the whole of the main text is as up-to-date as its 2013 publication date suggests; Strasburger 2013 still seems largely rooted in the ‘noughties’. And these forisome, karrikin and strigolactone revelations are illustrative of the main issue I have with Strasburger 2013…
This 2013 English translation is based on the 36th German language edition of Strasburger published in 2008. As the first English version since the 1976 translation of the 30th German Edition, Strasburger 2013 is to be welcomed. However, given that gap of nearly 40-years, and encouraged by having seen some attempts to update the text for researches/references post-2008, it seems a great pity that the publisher didn’t wait just a little longer to provide an English translation of 2014’s 37th German Edition of Strasburger (wherein one hopes such issues as forisomes, karrikins and strigolactones will have been addressed…). That tome should be as up-to-date as it can reasonably be expected to be and would arguably be a more fitting re-entry of Springer into the highly competitive English language plant science textbook market after an absence of nearly four decades. Given that English is not only a global lingua franca, but is also the international language of science, and that English is spoken by approx. 335 million people (cf. c. 78 million for German), one can’t help but think that a ‘Strasburger 2014’ (or even Strasburger 2015 – but don’t leave it any longer or we’ll have issues of Strasburger 2013 up-to-datedness again!) might have been a better way to extend – and expand? – Strasburger’s legacy beyond “Germany and neighboring countries” (2nd paragraph of Preface) by tapping into that much larger community of anglophone plant scientists, particularly in the USA.
Akiyama K, Hayashi H (2006) Strigolactones: Chemical Signals for Fungal Symbionts and Parasitic Weeds in Plant Roots. Annals of Botany 97: 925–931.
Chiwocha SDS, Dixon KW, Flematti GR, et al. (2009) Karrikins: A new family of plant growth regulators in smoke. Plant Science 177: 252–256.
Evert RF (2006) Esau’s Plant Anatomy: Meristems, Cells, and Tissues of the Plant Body: Their Structure, Function, and Development, 3e. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Evert RF, Eichhorn SE (2012) Raven Biology of Plants, 8e. WH Freeman.
Gunning BES (2009) Plant Cell Biology on DVD. Springer.
Jones R, Ougham H, Thomas H, Waaland S (2013) The Molecular Life of Plants. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Judd, WS, Campbell CS, Kellogg EA, Stevens PF, Donoghue MJ (2007) Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach, 3e. Sinauer Associates.
Knoblauch M, Noll GA, Müller T, et al. (2003) ATP-independent contractile proteins from plants. Nature Materials 2: 600–603.
Lambers, H, Chapin III, FS, Pons, TL (2008) Plant Physiological Ecology. Springer.
Larcher W (2003) Physiological Plant Ecology, 4e. Springer.
Mauseth JD (2014) Botany: An introduction to Plant Biology, 5e. Jones & Bartlett.
Palacio S, Azorín J, Montserrat-Martí G, Ferrio JP (2014) The crystallization water of gypsum rocks is a relevant water source for plants. Nature Communications 5:4660 doi: 10.1038/ncomms5660.
Smith AM, Coupland G, Dolan L, et al. (2010) Plant Biology. Garland Science.
Taiz L, Zeiger E (2010) Plant Physiology, 5e. Sinauer Associates Inc.
Volkmann D, Baluška F, Menzel D (2012) Eduard Strasburger (1844-1912): founder of modern plant cell biology. Protoplasma 249: 1163-1172.
* NB this review based upon a limited-functionality ebook version of Strasburger 2013, which did not permit searching of the text.