The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (Non-fiction)

A fascinating and timely story about the life sciences revolution (specifically gene editing) and the Covid bomb that ignited a community already poised at the brink of discovery — all told through the biographical lens of recent Nobel winner Jennifer Doudna.

Isaacson is a skilled biographer and synthesizer. He has an unsurpassed ability to explain very complex concepts in accessible terms. I’ve read four of his books and have been impressed by his ability to explain well things I already know (Steve Jobs and computers) and things in which I have little background and zero aptitude (Leonardo Da Vinci and 15th century art). His descriptions of CRISPR (DNA sequences that enable the gene editing at the heart of the book) and the myriad ways it was discovered, applied, and deployed do not disappoint. What I liked best? You actually feel the zing of scientific discovery as he describes the evolution of gene editing tools and techniques and the researchers who made it happen.

Getting to know the researchers was almost as interesting as learning the science — to the point where Jennifer Doudna — while thoroughly admirable — did not have a personality that eclipsed the other players, making it feel less like a biography and more like a community portrait. Every one of the key contributors was profiled in a succinct but insightful way: James Watson of DNA discovery fame (more on him later); Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church (who felt trapped in the present when he should be in the future); Doudna’s co-Nobelist and co-discoverer of the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors” the peripatetic Emmanuelle Charpentier who likes to keep herself on edge and not get too comfy; Feng Zhang — credited (but bitterly contested) with applying CRISPR to the human genome; and the many, many additional researchers pursuing careers in the field.

In addition to the science and the scientists, Isaacson spends a fair amount of time on the aspects of commercialization including the competition between academics resulting in sometimes bitter patent battles on rights regarding various facets of the technology and its applications. In contrast, he also gives plenty of air play to the wealth of technologies born of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic covering how the community was poised to act and the incredible bureaucracy and what strings had to be pulled to get through it (and who had the clout to pull those strings). Also included is a pretty comprehensive description of the requirements and applied innovations to virus detection, vaccination, and treatment. I actually feel much calmer about covid having read the book.

Lastly, Isaacson devoted a lot of time and discussion to the question of ethics — a topic I always enjoy. Ethical questions such as safety and unintended consequences, the tradeoff between individual needs and the needs of society, the potential widening of the privilege gap, and the potential impact on human diversity if we allow people free choice on gene selection for offspring. Isaacson inserted a lot of his own ideas into this section and I can’t say I agreed with everything he said, though he did fairly include multiple viewpoints. He appeared to conflate (as people often do) genius with debilitating problems — pointing to Van Gogh (mental illness) and Miles Davis (sickle cell anemia) as examples where a change to their genetic structure might alleviate their suffering but hamper their creative output — a loss to society as a whole. He (again, as most people do) also firmly yoked diversity to physical characteristics instead of a wide range of personality, opinion, intelligences etc. There appears to a strong fear that if left to their own devices, everyone would choose to have blonde haired, blue eyed children. Also — nobody ever seems to bring up the ethical question of parents making decisions for their as-yet-unborn children! I have more strong opinions on this chapter but I encourage you to read it yourself!

I have a few other issues with the book — Isaacson seems to insert himself into the action more often than I thought necessary and spent a little longer than I liked on a somewhat sensationalized version of the patent wars. He also loudly supported our new “cancel culture” with his full chapter treatise on James Watson’s fall from grace due to unpopular racial remarks. I’m a big believer in a free electorate who must be trusted to think for themselves and not in favor of shutting down people who have beliefs different from my own (no matter how distasteful). Controlling people’s freedom of expression is really a bad move for a free society, regardless of how much we each wish we could get the other side to shut up!

Still — small annoyances aside — this is a fully engaging book about a fascinating topic told in an accessible manner and covering one of the key turning points of human civilization — so go buy it today and read it!

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