Walter Issacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

This is a big book in so many ways. Walter Isaacson is known for in-depth biographies of such diverse people as Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin, so he is certainly a “big name” author. The book itself is 485 pages long, not including the notes, which brings the page count to 536. As the sub-title indicates, the central figure in this book is Jennifer Doudna, but many, many others have significant roles in this not so brief history of CRISPR (which can be loosely defined as a way to edit genes.)

Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii, the eldest daughter of a college professor. Her father, who doted on her, once left her a copy of Watson’s book on DNA, The Double Helix, and she mentions this book as one of the reasons she pursued a career as a scientist, despite being told by her high school guidance counselor that “women don’t do science.” Rather obviously, she not only did science, but she has done it well enough to earn the Nobel Prize in 2020.

In The Codebreaker, Isaacson follows Doudna’s career, but intersperses it with pertinent information about the gradual unfolding of modern genetic studies, along with brief sketches of the scientists and scholars who influenced Doudna’s work. Two terms which come up over and over are RNA, which is the “worker bee” that carries out many functions in life, and CRISPR, which has to do with the structures which help organisms adapt to needed change (such as when bacteria “learns” to resist a virus.)

There are a lot of pages in this book devoted to what was discovered, by whom, when, and who managed to get published first. That’s the nature of academia. Then there’s the quest for patents and prize money, which is how some academic institutions manage to pay for enormous labs and pay their large supporting staff. Again, this is a book that is about more than a single researcher. Over and over, Isaccson stresses the importance of collaboration in modern science.

There are some really important concepts discussed in the later chapters, including the ethics of manipulating human genes. One researcher took it upon himself to edit the offspring of Chinese couples in an attempt to eliminate the possibility that they could have HIV, which is apparently quite shunned in modern Chinese culture. Other possible reasons to edit offspring would be to eradicate such conditions as Huntington’s disease, which ends in a horrible decline before inevitable death. Eliminating genetic diseases are worthy uses for CRISPR and other genetic engineering, where is the line? Should prospective parents be able to choose the genetic characteristics such as height, intellect, or even hair color of their offspring they way we might choose dishes in a cafeteria? A number of scientists, including Doudna, have had many meetings, discussing such topics, and these are summarized in The Code Breaker.

When the nasty CV hit, a situation that the author sometimes describes as “the plague year,” many of the scientists mentioned in this book, including Doudna, put aside their competition for prizes and first published honors, and collaborated to produce accurate and rapid tests for the pesky illness. Then, in short order, they turned to prevention, and the mRNA vaccines. Not only were these vaccines quick to develop, they also lay the groundwork for more to come, as the same techniques might be used to prevent other illnesses.

The Code Breaker is more than a biography, as the title states, and it is a longish, sometimes challenging book, but like other works by Walter Issacson, ultimately quite rewarding. It isn’t cheap to buy, compared to many of the books I read, nor is it “light reading.” Like a gourmet meal, it is complex, memorable, and enjoyable. Readers are urged to read, then think, and ultimately savor this work.

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