There are three foundational dates in the history of encyclopedism: 500 CE for the completion of the Babylonian Talmud, 1751 for the publication of the Encyclopédie(Diderot and D'Alembert, 1751)and 1989 for the initial publication of Drosophila: A Laboratory Handbook (Ashburner,1989). For the first, it is unlikely that any reviews were solicited or written. For the second, one of its originators, Denis Diderot,reviewed it himself (favorably). For the third, now released in its second edition, the task of reviewing 1409 pages of the most comprehensive,meticulously organized, thoroughly referenced and exhaustively detailed compendium of Drosophilology ever to be undertaken is challenging, to say the least.
All three encyclopedic landmarks have had major impacts on science. Talmudic disputation and hair-splitting became the paradigm for cellular immunology in its heyday. Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie provided the first comprehensive compilation of the length and breadth of human knowledge, including a survey of natural philosophy (i.e. science). Ashburner's understated title, Drosophila: A Laboratory Handbook, belies the enormity and thoroughness of his original treatment of the subject, which has now become even more enormous and even more thorough (if such a thing is possible) in its new, triple-author incarnation as Ashburner, Golic and Hawley. It would suffice to say that any laboratory serious about working with the little fruit fly needs at least one copy of this book.
All three authors have fly credentials as sterling as one could want. Although not a progeny of the standard fly lineage (documented in Keith Maggert's Fly Researcher's Pedigrees; see http://flybase.bio.indiana.edu/allied-data/lk/pedigree.html),Ashburner has taught himself seemingly everything there is to know about the organism and its genetics, and has interacted with virtually everyone in the fly world. Golic and Hawley are progeny of the Larry Sandler lineage, steeped in the traditions of meiosis, hard-core chromosome mechanics, fly lore and scholarship. Moreover, they all have intimate knowledge as either the originators or practitioners of the new hybrid genetic/molecular techniques that endow the fly with the degree of versatility and experimental prowess that makes it stand above all other systems. But the breadth and depth of the subjects treated goes far beyond the combined research expertise of all three authors.
As one would expect, all genetics-related subjects are explored and documented – for example, chromosome cytology, chromosome aberrations,mutants and mutagenesis, mitotic recombination, mosaic techniques, aneuploidy,sex determination, and dosage compensation – as well as their contemporary counterparts in the molecular characteristics of the fly genome and the newer combined molecular-genetic techniques (such as, for example,homologous recombination). Beyond these subjects, reproductive biology, the principles and techniques of its husbandry, and diseases and parasites are also covered. Several esoteric (but quintessentially fly) genetic subjects are also given an unusually full treatment here, including autosynaptic chromosomes, transvection and position effect. Taxonomy remains one of the most extensive portions of the volume, albeit with a new-found urgency borne of the comparative genome sequencing carried out in the past few years and still ongoing.
The new edition is not merely a re-issue of the original with a few additions (in contrast to a much smaller fly genetic primer published, and recently re-issued, by the same press). Many subjects have been expanded, some dramatically (for example, there are now separate chapters on male and female meiosis), others rearranged and consolidated. Major chapters have been deleted, for example, when they could no longer hope to encompass the material(such as the original chapter on development), or when they dealt with fundamentally non-genetic techniques that are well treated elsewhere (e.g. tissue culture). In their place, new chapters have appeared (such as the one on the genetic analysis of DNA repair).
Why would anyone, even in a fly lab, need such a hodge-podge of topics collected in one place? Because even in the age of PubMed and FlyBase, one cannot find everything one needs online. This is especially true of the older literature. Not that the references are not to be found in FlyBase, but, to be placed properly in context, they have to have been read and incorporated into a body of knowledge and understanding. Databases do not have this ability (not even `advanced search' engines). In other words, this current, updated tome is a testament to the value (as well as the honor) that is associated with traditional scholarship, a practice that has all but disappeared from our world. Consistent with this tradition, this book mercifully avoids any discussion of Drosophila `models' for human disease. It does,however, meet its present-day responsibilities by giving a detailed account of the available databases and other electronic reference resources available online.
When is the book useful? If you do not know anything about a subject, you can find an overview and guidance to the appropriate references. If you know a little bit about a subject and need to find more, you can be similarly edified and then directed to the relevant literature. If you need to know how long the pupal stage will last at 23°C, you can look it up. If you want a highly detailed laboratory manual or a textbook, you must look elsewhere, as that is not the role of an encyclopedia. This is not to say that there is no detail,but the detail is of an encyclopedic sort (e.g. vector maps, names of important stocks, and scads of vital statistics on the fly that are otherwise scattered throughout the literature).
Does this volume have any failings? Perhaps, depending on your perspective.(Reviewers, whether of books or grants, are always asked to point out deficiencies as well as strengths.) It is not exactly beach reading –but then neither is the Encyclopedia Brittanica. It is not exactly a page turner – but then neither is the Talmud. One can always nit-pick, but that would obscure the immensely impressive effort that has gone into this oeuvre. Those who lament the loss of scientific traditions and the knowledge that came with them can take comfort in the lengths to which this book goes to preserve them and to carry them into the future. We are all indebted to its authors.