Walter Isaacson’s ‘Code Breaker’ Spotlights The Girl At The Forefront Of CRISPR : NPR

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Enhancing, and the Way forward for the Human Race, Walter Isaacson

Simon & Schuster

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Simon & Schuster

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Enhancing, and the Way forward for the Human Race, Walter Isaacson

Simon & Schuster

In early November 2018, twin women — Lulu and Nana — had been delivered by caesarian part in a Chinese language hospital. Their beginning probabably would have gone unnoticed outdoors of the household apart from one issue: They had been the world’s first gene-edited infants.

A Chinese language scientist, He Jiankui, edited their embryos ostensibly in an effort to guard them from being contaminated with the HIV virus, utilizing a gene modifying instrument known as CRISPR. The announcement of designer infants was met with horror and outrage, notably within the scientific neighborhood. He misplaced his job and was sentenced to a few years in jail.

These potential, and far-reaching, penalties of gene-editing know-how are themes working by means of Walter Isaacson’s new e-book The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Enhancing, and the Way forward for the Human Race.

Coming in at almost 500 pages, the e-book dives into the essence of life and the heady world of genomes and genetic coding, or what Isaacson calls “the third nice revolution of contemporary instances,” following the atom, and the bit which led to the digital revolution.

For the uninitiated — these of us who can’t inform their DNAs from RNAs — understanding this new frontier in science is usually a bit daunting. Take this instance early on within the e-book when Isaacson explains the distinction between the 2:

“RNA (ribonucleic acid) is a molecule in residing cells that’s just like DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), but it surely has another oxygen atom in its sugar-phosphate again bone and a distinction in considered one of its 4 bases.”

Isaacson makes it clear that RNA has performed a starring position each in The Code Breaker, in addition to within the life and profession of its central character, Jennifer Doudna, who was the co-recipient — with Emmanuelle Charpentier — of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the invention of CRISPR, the gene-editing know-how.

CRISPR is the unwieldy acronym for Clustered Often Interspaced Quick Palindromic Repeats, which is basically a pure method of altering or changing DNA sequences in a cell. It’s being examined in meals and animals and, in a restricted method, to right or deal with genetic defects comparable to sickle-cell anemia.

Like his earlier books on Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albert Einstein, Isaacson leans closely on profiles to inform the broader story. On this case, he focuses on Doudna (pronounced DOWD-nuh) to discover the confluence of science, innovation, and ethics.

Doudna was raised in Hawaii the place with blonde hair and blue eyes she says she felt like “a whole freak.” However she beloved exploring nature within the surrounding meadows and sugarcane fields, and was inspired by her father and a biology professor to consider a life dedicated to science.

That curiosity was ignited when her father gave her a battered paperback copy of James Watson’s The Double Helix, a vigorous account concerning the discovery of the construction of DNA for which he gained a Nobel prize in 1962, together with fellow biochemists Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.

Isaacson passionately charts Doudna’s swiftly rising star, as she strikes from labs and colleges, together with Harvard and Yale, in the end ending up on the College of California, Berkeley the place she heads the Division of Chemistry and the Division of Molecular and Cell Biology.

However Isaacson additionally pays tribute to the various others who, in their very own method, contributed to the understanding and improvement of gene modifying, by weaving in compelling vignettes together with shiny pictures of scientists and researchers. It is a broad solid of characters, and at instances the selection appears a bit random. However, in the end, it helps create an understanding that these breakthroughs aren’t created in a bubble, it requires a patchwork of experiments and experience over a few years.

The mini-biographies additionally spotlight the interpersonal relationships and rivalries among the many scientists. It was eye-opening to learn of the ferocious competitors, backstabbing and underhanded efforts that may go on as scientists and researchers try to get papers printed first, win prizes, or acquire patents that may herald billions of {dollars} to a school. Greater than as soon as Isaacson questions whether or not science suffers within the race for glory.

Isaacson does not maintain again about Doudna’s personal robust aggressive streak, or her ongoing competitors with Feng Zhang, a China-born researcher on the Broad Institute of MIT. Over time the 2 have been locked in authorized battles over patents.

However there’s additionally collaboration amongst scientists when the necessity arises, as was the case in 2018. The beginning of the gene-edited infants in China was a clarion name for the scientific neighborhood at massive. It was seen as crossing a pink line. Gene modifying to battle sickle cell enema was one factor, utilizing the know-how within the hopes of creating infants taller, smarter, freed from any illness was one other.

Since then, Doudna has change into the face of the moral dialogue surrounding the potential of CRISPR know-how — talking broadly, together with to Congress, concerning the promise and the intense, even harmful, implications if this highly effective know-how.

Isaacson wraps up on a optimistic be aware, including a ultimate chapter on the position of CRISPR know-how within the struggle in opposition to the COVID-19 pandemic, serving to to detect the RNA of the coronavirus.

Within the epilogue, Isaacson admits to what turns into abundantly clear all through the e-book — that he too learn The Double Helix when he was younger and, like Doudna, needed to change into a biochemist. He did not. As an alternative he selected a occupation that offers him a main seat to view this new scientific horizon.

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