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Teaching plant anatomy through creative laboratory exercises.
RL Peterson, CA Peterson, LH Melville. 2008.
Ottawa, Ontario: NRC Press. Can. $59.95 (spiral bound). 164 pp.
When is a coffee table book not a coffee table book? When it's Peterson et al.'s Teaching plant anatomy (hereafter referred to as TPA). The stunning colour illustrations that adorn almost every page of this slim volume are a great joy to view, and the text is also a pleasure to read.
Although TPA covers what I regard as fairly traditional territory for plant anatomy texts, it does it so well, and better than many. The book's ten chapters are as follows: (1) Types of microscopes and microscopy (3·5 pp.); (2) Sectioning and staining (7 pp.): use of styrofoam® as an aid to sectioning is sheer genius (as is the imaginative staining apparatus made from embedding capsules!); (3) Cell organelles and ergastic (chemicals with no or low metabolic turn-over, e.g. calcium oxalate crystals, vacuolar pigments and polyphenols) substances (7 pp.); (4) Cell types in simple tissues (10 pp.); (5) Complex tissues (13 pp.); (6) Secretory substances (7 pp.); (7) Roots (17 pp.): as expected given the book's authorship, lots of beautiful fluorescence images of endodermis, etc; (8) Stems (17 pp.); (9) Leaves (19 pp.); and (10) Reproductive organs (13 pp.). TPA concludes with six Appendices (9 pp.) dealing with such items as plant anatomy texts, making stains and tests of plant cell viability; a Glossary (9 pp.); and five pages of Index. Not only is TPA lavishly illustrated throughout – 339 images, the great majority in full colour – but the accompanying CD contains all of those images ready for use in teaching plant anatomy creatively.
TPA effectively – and successfully – straddles the divide between plant anatomy texts (e.g. Dickison, 2000; Beck, 2005; Evert, 2006; Rudall, 2007) on the one hand, and techniques-orientated books on the other (e.g. O'Brien and McCully, 1981; Ruzin, 1999). Indeed, as TPA acknowledges, it is not a plant anatomy text (although it directs interested readers to suitable tomes for that) and neither is it a techniques' book (again, it points people in the right place for that sort of information). But it includes more than enough anatomical background to make the book understandable, and includes sufficient technical detail for the – remarkably economical – range of techniques used.
Direct comparison/competition with TPA? Maybe Cutler et al. (2008), although the latter leans more towards the traditional anatomy text side than does TPA. But none of the other texts mentioned come close to the visual magnificence of TPA, which stands out as a great testament to the microscopist's art, showing what can be done with a razor blade, some toluidine blue and a steady hand. Inspiration in bucket-loads!
Pedagogy is evident throughout TPA, which is full of extremely practical tips, illustrating the more tricky procedures, and has the advantage of already having been tested on students. Acknowledging the north-temperate bias regarding species used, the authors are keen to stress how readily TPA can be adapted for plants in other parts of the world, thereby increasing its educational value.
I found very little to criticise about TPA. However, neither permanent mounts nor even semi-permanent mounts are covered, which is a shame since it would be nice for students to have longer-lasting souvenirs of their anatomical prowess. Alternatively, it would have been useful to say how the photomicrographs were captured – photographs would have provided a suitable alternative to permanent mounts.
Whether this book will put the purveyors of mass-produced, commercially prepared microscope slides (use of which TPA deliberately avoids) out of business is debatable, but there really is no substitute for one's own handiwork revealed in all its metachromatic glory with freshly-prepared TBO. Guilty pleasures? Perhaps, but what a genuine sense of achievement! Although requiring some practice to prepare well, fresh sections do give more representative views of cells than those found in many commercial preparations. Indeed, the fact that most of TPA's images are from such hand-cut sections is one of this book's great wonders – with a little patience and perseverance this is the sort of plant anatomy that can be achieved by students, even in a 2-hour class.
TPA's authors view the book very much as a starting point, hoping to inspire students to continue their studies further in projects, and to provide correlative structural information for plant physiological and molecular biology studies. Noble aims to be sure, but this reviewer hopes that Teaching plant anatomy (both the book and the act) will go a long way towards achieving them. Buy it, read it, use it!