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Biochemical howlers

This page introduces a series that discuss common errors in current textbooks of biochemistry.


This page and all of those related to it are now obsolete,
as it has proved impossible to keep them up to date after about 2005,
on account of lack of access to recent editions of textbooks.


Introduction: what this page is for

It is inevitable that textbooks contain mistakes, and in a subject as broad as modern biochemistry it is a brave author who can even contemplate the idea of writing a book of more than 1000 pages that is supposed to cover the whole field. No one can be expert in all of biochemistry, and even when expert reviewers check each section of a book there are bound to be a few mistakes that escape detection until after it is too late to correct them.

That said, it remains true that some mistakes seem to get copied from book to book and from edition to edition, and publicizing them as Textbook errors in Trends in Biochemical Sciences or Biochemical Education seems to have less effect than one might hope, or at least a much more short-term effect. Certain errors do seem to get less frequent over the years—thirty or forty years ago almost all textbook authors seemed to be confused about the zwitterionic structure of amino acids, but now the majority have it more or less right—but others, such as the grossly poor drawing of the curve that is supposed to represent a Michaelis–Menten dependence of rate on substrate concentration improve depressingly slowly. So it seems to be worthwhile to create a permanent listing of the commonest errors, noting which textbooks have it right.

Errors discussed

The pages that discuss examples of errors in current textbooks are listed in the table. The letters in the column headings refer to the different textbooks: (C = Boyer; C = Campbell & Farrell; G = Garrett & Grisham; H = Horton et al.; L = Nelson & Cox (formerly Lehninger) Mc = McKee & McKee; Mt = Mathews et al.; Mt = Metzler; S = Berg et al.; (formerly Stryer); V = Voet & Voet), which are listed in full below.

 Topic B C G H L Mc Mt Me S V
Confusion about the prefixes D- and L- Bad Poor OK OK OK Poor OK OK
Specificity and properties of liver hexokinase (glucokinase) Bad Bad Poor Poor OK OK Bad OK
Bad asymptotes in the plot of rate against substrate concentration with Michaelis–Menten kinetics Bad Bad OK OK OK Bad Poor OK Poor OK
The myth of metabolic efficiency Bad Bad OK Poor OK OK OK Bad
Uncharged amino acids Poor Bad OK Poor OK Poor Poor OK
Phosphofructokinase controls glycolysis Bad Poor OK Bad OK OK Bad Bad
The structure of glycogen Bad Poor Bad Bad Bad Bad Bad Bad
Cholesterol in plants Poor Bad Poor Poor Poor

Other textbook errors

The errors noted on these pages are certainly not the only ones that commonly occur in biochemistry textbooks, and there are probably others as important as or more important than these that I have not noted. I shall therefore be very glad to hear from readers who have suggestions for other entries (and can supply evidence that they are widespread in modern textbooks). If they concern points on which I feel competent to hold an opinion I shall add them. In other cases (most points regarding molecular biology, for example) it is probably better if people more expert than I am compile their own lists.

I have tried to confine this list to cases where the facts appear completely clear, with no room for multiple opinions. However, if any readers feel that some criticisms are unfair or exaggerated I shall be glad to hear from them.

Textbooks considered

The letter shown in brackets before each entry is the corresponding caption in the table above.

[B] Boyer, R. F. (2002) Concepts in Biochemistry (2nd edn.) Wiley, New York

[C] Campbell, M. K. and Farrell, S. O. (2002) Biochemistry (4th edn.) Brooks/Cole

[G] Garrett, R. H. and Grisham, C. M. (2004) Biochemistry (3rd edn.) Brooks/Cole

[H] Horton, R. H., Moran, L. A., Ochs, R. S., Rawn, D. J. and Scrimgeour, K. G. (1996) Principles of Biochemistry (3rd edn.), Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

[L] Nelson, D. L. and Cox, M. M. (2004) Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry (4th edn.) Freeman, New York

[M] McKee,T. and McKee, J. R. (2002) Biochemistry: the Molecular Basis of Life (3rd edn.), McGraw-Hill

[Mt] Mathews, C. K., van Holde, K. E. and Ahern, K. G. (1999) Biochemistry (3rd edn.), Addison Wesley Longman, San Francisco

[Me] Metzler, D. E. (2003) Biochemistry (2nd edn.), Academic Press

[S] Berg, J. M., Tymoczko, J. L. and Stryer, L. (2002) Biochemistry (5th edn.) Freeman, New York (parially corrected reprint of the edition published in 1993)

Criteria for including a textbook

A textbook was eligible for inclusion in the list as it was updated in 2005 if it satisfied the following criteria:

  1. It purported to cover the whole of biochemistry and was written primarily for biochemistry students (rather than, say, for medical students);
  2. It was published in or since 1995;
  3. No later edition existed (to my knowledge).