The discovery that CRISPR, a bacterial defense mechanism against viruses, could be used to edit human genes is one of the most significant scientific advancements of the last half-century. This breakthrough in biological research is credited to Jennifer Doudna, who was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work. Walter Isaacson’s book “The Code Breaker” chronicles Doudna’s immense contributions to the development of CRISPR as a gene-editing tool as well as the applications of this technology. The book’s narrative structure, accessible scientific explanations, compelling themes and thought-provoking questions about the future of humanity make it a worthwhile and informative read.
Inspired to become a scientist after reading James Watson’s “The Double Helix,” Doudna began her scientific career by researching RNA, which acts as an intermediary between DNA and proteins. After learning about CRISPR, which had been discovered in the 1990s, Doudna sought to determine how bacteria used the CRISPR system to destroy viral DNA sequences. Collaborating with Emmanuelle Charpentier (with whom Doudna shared the Nobel Prize), Doudna elucidated the functions of key CRISPR components and realized that CRISPR could also be used to edit human DNA. Doudna and Charpentier’s seminal 2012 paper explaining how CRISPR could be harnessed for gene editing in humans revolutionized the field of biotechnology.
In “The Code Breaker,” Isaacson examines the impact of Doudna’s work. He explores CRISPR’s therapeutic potential, particularly its use in developing diagnostic tools and treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Isaacson also details the damage that CRISPR has left in its wake, including the contentious patent battles between Doudna and her rival Feng Zhang and the birth of the first “CRISPR babies,” whose genomes had been edited by a rogue Chinese scientist.
Although “The Code Breaker” is a work of nonfiction, the book has many narrative elements that keep the reader engaged. Isaacson’s meticulous research, detailed interviews and first-person account of certain events immerse the reader in the story of the development of CRISPR as a gene-editing tool. The inclusion of quotes from interviews with key figures in CRISPR research is particularly powerful and helps bring these individuals to life. The scientific explanations of CRISPR and its applications are accessible to those without an extensive knowledge of biology and do not distract from the narrative.
“The Code Breaker” also depicts intriguing themes such as the challenges faced by women in science. Isaacson draws parallels between the discriminatory treatment of Rosalind Franklin, who helped discover DNA’s structure in the 1950s, and the misogyny that Doudna confronted as she pursued a career in science and later sought credit for her work on CRISPR. The development of CRISPR technology also illustrates the nature of scientific discovery itself, particularly the balance between competition and collaboration and the desire for fame.
What makes “The Code Breaker” a necessary read, however, is the questions it raises about using CRISPR for germline editing, or editing the genes of embryos so that the resulting individuals and all of their descendants will possess a desired trait from birth onward.
Should parents be allowed to prevent their children from inheriting a deadly genetic disease? What about making their children immune to viral infections? What about making them taller, stronger, more intelligent? What about giving them superhuman abilities? Who should be allowed to answer these questions? Should we be tampering with human evolution at all?
“The Code Breaker” gives readers the necessary information to try to tackle these questions, which Isaacson purposely leaves open-ended. Addressing these issues now will help lay the groundwork for future ethical guidelines surrounding the use of germline editing, which will almost certainly become a common practice within the lifetimes of today’s young adults.
Of course, “The Code Breaker” is not without its flaws. Isaacson sometimes inserts his opinions into the book, which interrupts the flow of the narrative. The ending is also unnecessarily tidy and somewhat disappointing. However, one could argue that there is no perfect ending to this book given the ever-evolving nature of CRISPR research and the critical decisions that lie on the horizon. Ultimately, the future of CRISPR—and of humanity—lies in the hands of the book’s readers, who will one day choose whether or not to embrace gene-editing. This alone makes “The Code Breaker,” already a captivating book, required reading for those who wish to begin confronting the next step in human evolution.
Abigail Goldman is a first-year majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology.
Featured image courtesy of Pexels.com.