My background is in math and I know very little about biology. The few biology books that I've looked at seem to explain what is known (or what is believed), but don't really explain how we know what is known. For a specific example, when I hear that "DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein", I would like to know things like:

  • How do we know that DNA makes RNA?
  • How do we know that RNA makes protein?
  • How do we know that there is such a thing as "protein" in the first place and how do we know what it is?
  • How do we know that there is such a thing as RNA and how do we know what RNA is?

Can you recommend any books that do a good job of explaining how we know what we know in molecular biology and genetics?

  • $\begingroup$ so basically you want a biology textbook and possibly a book about the history of cellular biology. You may want to google Francis Crick and the origins of the "Central Dogma of Molecular Biology" which is will show you how transcription (DNA->RNA) and translation(RNA->protein) were discovered. This slideshare will help you with proteins, slideshare.net/sabarnisarker/history-of-protein-discovery, The trick isthese are not single discoveries but a series of many many discoveries and experiments building our understanding. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 9 '17 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ The following wikipedia articles give an overview on the various discoveries that lead to our understanding of genetics. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_molecular_biology en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_RNA_biology en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_genetics $\endgroup$ – adjan Jul 9 '17 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ @John Those slides about the history of protein discovery are great, thanks. $\endgroup$ – littleO Jul 9 '17 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Adrian Thanks, good to know about. While learning the history of the discoveries can be very enlightening, and might be the best approach for me, I'm not only interested in how it was done historically. What I would most like to know is, in hindsight, what would be the simplest or most direct way to go about discovering these things. $\endgroup$ – littleO Jul 9 '17 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ Just about every molecular biology book that I've seen covers the basics of the history, including providing answers to your questions, via a summary of landmark experiments in the field. I've always fantasized about teaching a "History of Molecular Biology" course, where we read the original papers, but I'm neither employed as a university professor nor confident that others would find that anywhere near as interesting as I would. $\endgroup$ – Cody Gray Jul 10 '17 at 4:01

This is not my favourite book on molecular biology (Alberts is my favourite, and Lodish is the runner up), but I'd recommend The Cell, A Molecular Approach, by Geoffrey Cooper

This book has, for every chapter, one or more boxes called "Key Experiments", in which the author describes famous experiments that allowed us to know what we know now about that subject.

For instance, at chapter 10, titled "Protein Sorting and Transport", the Key Experiment box shows the discovery of the peptide signal by Gunter Blobel:

enter image description here

And the best news, the book is completely free at NCBI bookshelf:


It's searchable, but unfortunately not browsable. However, the workaround is very simple: just type the chapter title in the search box!

Of course, some concepts are so old (for instance, you asked "how do we know that there is such a thing as "protein" in the first place") that you probably are not going to find them in molecular biology textbooks, but on a book about history of science instead.

PS: By the way, both Alberts and Lodish are also free to read (and browsable) at NCBI bookshelf!


You may want to try A History of Molecular Biology by Michel Morange, it is currently in its third edition, It will not cover everything (proteins are discovered much earlier), you are asking for a wide swath of biology, but it should get you started.

The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology is also a good read. It is also funny to hear Crick bemoan his misuse of the word dogma that has been immortalized by his discoveries, he used it in the title becasue it was "catchy".

  • $\begingroup$ Wow a very helpful answer $\endgroup$ – Always Confused Mar 15 '20 at 3:11

As a master of science in molecular biology. I would recommend getting the two books.

Biochemistry by Stryer

Molecular Biology of the cell by Alberts et al.

Those two together are the course books used for several semesters worth of molecular biology and biochemistry, covering the central dogma plus quite a lot more. They are very well referenced and are worth every penny.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While I'd agree to some extent (I know them well; we used both at undergrad), I think OP wants a book which actually describes and explains the key experiments in terms understandable to a relative newcomer, rather than simply referencing them. $\endgroup$ – arboviral Jul 10 '17 at 7:44

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