I have read nearly all of Walter Isaacson’s books, including his biographies of Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Frankin, Albert Einstein, The Innovators and most recently, the story of Jennifer Doudna, titled The Code Breaker. [Leonardo Da Vinci biography remains my favourite of his books 🙂 ]
Since Marie Curie in 1911, only five women have won the chemistry Nobel. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won in 2020 for CRISPR, a gene-editing technology.
Doudna and Charpentier are the sixth and seventh women to win the chemistry Nobel. Marie Curie was first in 1911, then followed by Marie’s daughter Irène in 1935.
Doudna and Charpentier earned the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2015 and the Kavli Prize in Norway in 2018. Shared interests, friendliness, and competition helped them develop a fruitful collaboration with one other and many colleagues in different countries.
It is widely agreed that Doudna was the catalyst for the current scientific revolution. The woman who launched the scientific revolution.
Isaacson deep dives into Doudna and Charpentier, but also other scientists whose work lead to this finding. Some of the most interesting chapters cover biohackers, rivalries, patents, personality quirks of the important players, and the usage of current technology and its ethical implications.
Isaacson discusses the ethics of gene editing, specifically “germline” modifications that can be carried on through generations and “enhancements” like green eyes or high I.Q. that prospective parents could place into their offspring’s genomes.
“Code Breaker” also defines the CRISPR complex, which cuts DNA carrying the genetic code.
The Crispr story has all the makings of a great film. A tense race, more than its share of outcasts, chemistry’s top prize, a massive patent dispute, designer babies, and mountains of ethical quicksand all feature prominently. However, this creates difficulty for the biographer, who must choose only one of the numerous possible protagonists. For good reason, Isaacson picked Doudna. However, unlike Charpentier, who has stated that she does not wish to be defined by Crispr and is instead researching other science topics, she stays implicated in its therapeutic uses and in the ethical debate it provoked by having helped to understand the basic science of Crispr. Doudna acts as the glue that keeps everything together.
Even though I have a strong belief in science, I don’t really understand all of its intricacies. However, I was attracted by the fact that this was about a woman, and her study sounded fascinating, so I made the decision to try it. I’m happy I did.
If you are a scientist, or a science fanatic, you are going to truly enjoy the twists and turns that this book takes, as well as the way it is told. Isaacson kept my interest throughout the book, despite the material being rather difficult and sometimes unclear, however, the research was fascinating.
To properly understand what Isaacson has done here, you need to at least have a decent interest in science. Storytelling a sophisticated subject such as science is not an easy thing but Isaacson has done an awesome job.
Isaacson narrates so well the pressures that lead to breakthrough innovations and the human flaws of great minds.
- “Ingenuity without wisdom is dangerous.”
- “The beauty of nature and the joy that comes from unstructured human engagement is a powerful combination.”
- “At the end of the day, the discoveries are what endure. We are just passing on this planet for a short time. We do our job, and then we leave and others pick up the work.”
- “Never do something that a thousand other people are doing.”
- “Great inventions come from understanding basic science. Nature is beautiful that way.”
- “We could create a gene gap that would get wider with each new generation,” she says. “If you think we face inequalities now, imagine what it would be like if society became genetically tiered along economic lines and we transcribed our financial inequality into our genetic code.”
- ‘By limiting gene edits to those that are truly “medically necessary,” she says, we can make it less likely that parents could seek to “enhance” their children, which she feels is morally and socially wrong.’
- “Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men.”
- “It was a bad day for viruses,” Moderna’s chair Afeyan says about the Sunday in November 2020 when he got the first word of the clinical trial results. “There was a sudden shift in the evolutionary balance between what human technology can do and what viruses can do. We may never have a pandemic again.”
- “Much of the attention paid to CRISPR these days involves its potential to make inheritable [germline] edits in humans that will be passed along to all the cells of all of our future descendants and have the potential to alter our species. These edits are done in reproductive cells or early-stage embryos. This is what occurred with the CRISPR baby twins in China in 2018.”
- ‘”We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future…” He was going to say “future World controllers,” but correcting himself, said “future Directors of Hatcheries.”‘
- “It was only after he died that I realized how influential he was in my decision to become a scientist.”