‘The Code Breaker’ tells the story of CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna


The Code BreakerWalter IsaacsonSimon & Schuster, $35

With the slightest contact, the fernlike vine often called sleeping grass folds over on itself, like a Venus flytrap closing its flaps. “What causes the leaves to shut if you contact them?” a younger Jennifer Doudna questioned rising up in Hawaii. Noticing that curiosity, Doudna’s father left James Watson’s ebook The Double Helix on her mattress in the future. Doudna sped via the pages, absorbing how Watson and Francis Crick deciphered the construction of DNA. At this time, she credit the ebook and her insatiable inquisitiveness for driving her to turn into a scientist and for setting the muse for her to codiscover, almost 4 a long time later, a set of molecular scissors known as CRISPR that may edit the genetic blueprint of life. Watson would later name CRISPR “crucial discovery since DNA’s construction,” Walter Isaacson writes in The Code Breaker.

The ebook, each a biography of Doudna and a deep dive into the ethics of genetic engineering, is written for individuals who might have heard of CRISPR however don’t know a lot in regards to the historical past of its growth. The ebook digs into the fierce patent battles which have ensued between the College of California (Doudna is on the Berkeley campus) and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the place different researchers, most notably Feng Zhang, had been additionally creating the gene-editing software. The tone and elegance of the ebook’s first half mimic The Double Helix, organising the scientific course of as a detective story, one targeted first on understanding how micro organism depend on CRISPR to fend off viral infections after which on how scientists remodeled that pure bacterial protection system right into a software that enables people to edit their very own DNA.

Whereas The Code Breaker begins off as a page-turner, the latter half is extra tedious, with tangents that loosely weave collectively the battle over the declare to discovering CRISPR and the moral questions round utilizing it. These questions got here to the fore in 2018, after the beginning of two infants whose genes had been edited whereas nonetheless embryos (SN: 11/27/18). Impressively well timed, Isaacson bounces from considerations over “designer” youngsters to Doudna’s shared 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry (SN: 10/7/20) to her newest race in opposition to rivals: adapting CRISPR right into a software that may shortly detect the virus that causes COVID-19, or one that would probably thwart the virus’s an infection of human cells (SN: 8/31/20). Now not is the race for patents and prizes, Isaacson writes, however one to avoid wasting humankind from the coronavirus and probably different ills.

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