Prof. Dr. Jens Boenigk/Biodiversity
Prof. Dr. Martin Simon/Molecular Cell and Microbiology
Photo: Private/UniService Transfer

Boenigk Biology - A textbook with vision

In a new biology textbook, Duisburg-Essen biodiversity professor Jens Boenigk (ed.) and Wuppertal cell biologist Martin Simon deal with the effects of the Corona pandemic

"Every single replication of a virus brings an increased risk of a new variant," Prof. Dr. Martin Simon says, cell biologist at the University of Wuppertal. "Accordingly, each individually vaccinated person can inhibit the replication of the virus through their vaccination." Education is the name of the game in this pandemic. And the education must begin with the students who would educate the next generation. Therefore, the new textbook with the simple title 'Boenigk Biology` looks across disciplines and far beyond.

Modern textbook concept for big data

The idea of presenting a textbook in a completely different way in the 21st century came from Prof. Dr Jens Boenigk, Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Mindful of the fact that biology has developed into one of the most important technology platforms, it must also be possible to present teaching content in a clearer and more condensed way. "As early as 2001, the then Federal Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn identified genetic research and biotechnology as key technologies of the 21st century," Boenigk begins. "And today, biological issues are on the agenda for many essential topics such as health, nutrition, climate protection or sustainability." In medicine, for example, one could mention gene therapy, stem cell research or the development of RNA vaccines. In the field of agriculture, it is a question of nutrition, of feeding the world, of sustainable agriculture in view of rising population figures and climate change. Meat consumption plays an important role here. Our water resources with regard to drinking water treatment as well as waste water treatment in connection with climate change, environmental pollution and species protection are also a major challenge. Whereby, Boenigk clearly emphasises that the areas of application and topics of biology are much more extensive. "However, an essential foundation of biology in all these fields are the increased possibilities to deal with large amounts of data," he says.

German specialist literature is often only available in translations

Previous biology textbooks are usually written for the American market, or are available as translations of American literature. However, the different educational systems of America and Europe are not easily compatible with our Bachelor's degree. Therefore, the biologist sees a major difference in the weighting of general education and specialised tasks in the American degree programmes. They give more space to general education courses and would therefore cut back on specialised aspects. "That then has very clear consequences in terms of what can be taught and how teaching materials should be structured." In addition, he said, all primary literature is English-language, and this also shows in the selection of topics and examples. "If you look at North American textbooks, which are also available in translations, they naturally list examples of North American animal and plant species. But it actually makes much more sense to focus on native species and regional examples for the European market." This is where the new textbook comes in. For the first time in German and with a completely new visualisation, it seeks a different way of teaching.

Organismic breadth from yesterday to the day after tomorrow

"Part of the teaching is that we address both the subject breadth of biology and also the content developments of the last decades in research and teaching. Additionally we include current content such as epigenetics, the development of microbiology and molecular biology. Also current topics such as climate change, the Covid 19 pandemic and other topics are included in the book," Boenigk explains. This applies just as much to the organismic breadth, because many of the existing textbooks were written from a zoological focus. In the case of plants or other groups of organisms, gaps or weaknesses became apparent, so that the new textbook also deals in detail with fungi, bacteria and eukaryotic unicellular organisms in addition to animals and plants. The particular challenge was the implementation of the didactic concept, explains the scientist, because "biology is the natural science with the largest specialised vocabulary and the references within biology between the sub-disciplines and the neighbouring sciences such as physics, chemistry, mathematics or the earth sciences are very pronounced.

Explanatory illustrations instead of long running texts

"Basically, we use illustrations as a starting point for teaching. We thus combine visual learning and associative links between various aspects and subject areas with the respective technical terms. We are able to convey complex interrelationships in a professional manner in a small amount of space, without overly long-winded explanations. We are able to do this by making much greater use of visual learning than it is the case in other textbooks. The visual reception of information has always played a central role for us humans, Boenigk knows. But in the past this channel of communication was usually not adequately used in textbooks. For this reason, he deliberately chose the book as the medium for conveying information. Pure learning via online media can quickly distract from the actual topic, also because of the rich links. "Especially in the age of increasing online availability of knowledge, there is a need for clearly structured learning resources that do justice to the scope of the subject. And I consider a real book to be the best educational resource here," he emphasises. His observations in the student body support his thesis. "When it comes to exam preparation, the book is the first medium of choice. And I think it is only logical to make full use of the strengths of the book medium.The density of information is extremely high due to the number of annotated illustrations. And it is possible to bring higher-level patterns and principles to the point in a small amount of space. "In this way, we have succeeded in including many modern aspects in a biology textbook without the volume of the work exploding. Wuppertal cell biologist Martin Simon adds: "The illustrations are also structured differently from classical illustrations. We have included text sections in the graphics, where they belong. An enzyme is directly explained via a speech bubble at the place at which it functions in a mechanism. This shortens the reader's jumping back and forth between text and illustration."

New book, new approach

First, Boenigk had to do a lot of convincing for the new book concept. All the authors had not worked like this before for a textbook. Simon, who contributed a large part of the genetics topic: "At the beginning, it was more complicated for me as an author. I could not just write my text, but I had to sketch the illustration in pencil, which was then designed by the graphics. In the beginning, it took a while to adjust to this way of working. As a result, the reader now has the overview and the partial information in one illustration. "That facilitates visual learning immensely!" And Boenigk adds: "The 'making of' is actually a point that was much more labour-intensive and complicated than with a standard textbook. The authors first had to rethink and prepare the information thinking from the illustration." The graphic designer in charge reached his limits with some of the illustrations and the project also meant new territory for the publisher.

Different groups of organisms with always the same structure

Boenigk Biology' is also a book that thinks outside the box and gives interdisciplinary contexts a central role. Boenigk explains it with an example from cell biology. "Here, we have the example of cell walls. We find them in the most diverse groups of organisms and, respectively, they are explained in the particular group of organisms. So bacteria have cell walls, fungi have cell walls, land plants have cell walls. But if you break it down like this and explain it in the different groups of organisms, then it is not really clear that it is always the same structure. We do this comparatively, pull this information together and explain the cell walls for all organisms with a corresponding reference to the individual organism groups." In compression, the connection becomes much clearer.

Covid-19 finds its way into teaching

Boenigk and Simon had known each other for years from various specialist conferences. And therefore, the Duisburg-Essen biologist approached the Wuppertal geneticist to collaborate on this new textbook concept. While the book was still being written, the worldwide Corona pandemic developed and the two scientists decided to dedicate two additional chapters to the epidemic. Simon says: "I had already explained the basics of viruses in my genetics chapter, and if you followed the media over the last year and a half, it inevitably followed that you had to go into more detail about the translation between the basics of virology and epidemiology." The new viral variants are exactly what is being experienced in the current Corona pandemic, Simon explains. Although vaccinated people can still become infected, replication of the viruses is becoming more difficult. "Every single person vaccinated contributes to the prevention of new variants and the reduced spread of the viruses!" The book also asks where the new, increasingly virulent strains are coming from. It points to the near future, as the problem of pandemics will be seen more and more often.Boenigk and Simon already want to point this out in teaching and pre-empt any uncertainty by providing detailed information, in order to also convince future vaccination refusers. "We all have teaching degrees in our courses," Simon explains. "We are training the next generation of teachers and we need to bring this knowledge to them now. And we need to manifest it in the textbooks so that it is passed on to the next generations in the schools." The chapter vividly portrays the social relevance of vaccination and helps the population to understand these changes by communicating them. Boenigk adds, "Genetics explains what a virus actually is, how it is built and functions, and what we are seeing now are the effects of viruses. This brings us to ecology, i.e. how they interact with their host, how they spread. That is why we also put these additional chapters in ecology. This also shows the close links between the disciplines. Viruses themselves will remain important, and also become more important," he concludes. "In society, as the population increases, we will have to deal with epidemics and pandemics more frequently. But the proportion of viruses in genomes is also only now being discovered. Viruses are playing an increasing role in the fields of genetic engineering, in understanding the structure of life anyway."

Howeever, how significant viruses will be in the future is more of a medical question. But one that could also be processed according to Boenigk`s textbook concept.

Uwe Blass (Interview on September 2, 2021)

Prof. Dr. Jens Boenigk teaches biodiversity at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
Prof. Dr. Martin Simon heads the Department of Molecular Cell Biology and Microbiology in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Wuppertal.

Boenigk, Biology
The companion in and through studies
Ed. Jens Boenigk
Springer Publishing House, 2021

Textbook takes up Corona issue

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