The Code Breaker

Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Title: The Code Breaker
Subtitle: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race
Author: Walter Isaacson
Published: 2021
ISBN: 978-1-3985-0231-4
Purchased from Amazon UK on 7 April 2021 for GBP 16.39 excluding shipping and taxes.

What the book is about:
One of the very few books I’ve ever read that leaves the best til last. And that was how the preceding scientific discoveries around gene editing, or genetic engineering, laid the critical groundwork for leading the fight against Covid-19. The potential consequences without these discoveries don’t bear thinking about!

But the rest of the book is excellent too in setting the stage, which is an absorbing account of the work and out-sized personalities that went before.

Earlier in Jennifer Doudna’s life, career guidance ‘experts’ (male it seems, sadly!) advised her against studying science, citing mantras that should have no place in a thinking person’s mind, such as “girls don’t do science”! Jennifer had the courage to follow her own aspirations and better judgement anyway. She progressed to be an eminent expert and one of the leading researchers involved in the discovery of CRISPR, a property of the blueprint of life itself, DNA. CRISPR is an acronym for ‘clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats’ and relates to repeat patterns in the double-helix structure of DNA.

The DNA they carried out their research on was from bacteria, and it was here they discovered bacteria’s trick for recognising an attack by viruses and fighting it off. A trick that these basic organisms has been evolving for over a billion years apparently!

Most people have heard of DNA, genes, chromosomes and all that. But like myself, not many have any real grasp of how, even in broad principle, it all fits together. For those of us not in the know about such things, maybe a little insight before getting into this book would make it even more worthwhile. There’s a good ‘legoland’-type overview here: https://geneticalliance.org.uk/information/learn-about-genetics/dna-genes-chromosomes-and-mutations/

My rudimentary understanding of what happens is the bacteria clip a characteristic pattern from the DNA of the virus and insert it at regular intervals in their own DNA. Some very complex biochemistry then allows the bacteria to use these patterns to recognise an attacking virus and kick the bacteria’s immune system into gear. Yes, just like humans, bacteria have immune systems! Hence the reason they develop immunity to overuse of antibiotics! Another gem of insight into why it’s imperative not to over-use antibiotics, or use them for the wrong illnesses such as bad colds, where they are ineffective anyway!

Doudna and other biochemists discovered and adapted this CRISPR process used by bacteria into gene-editing tools. They found that this could be used to tackle many dreadful diseases and conditions, inheritable and non-inherited. The other side of this gene editing coin is that the possibility of creating designer human beings became a reality. The antagonists of course referred to this as “playing God”. The ability has already arrived. The question now is what to do about and with it.

There are powerful personalities and characters involved in most cutting-edge pursuits, and the field of gene editing research is no exception. Ranging from the balanced humble, collaborative, ethical and moral, to the downright ruthless, selfish, deceitful, psychopathic, egotistic and plain misguided. Isaacson tries to navigate them all in an even-handed and insightful manner. He succeeds handsomely.

As is true in the scientific method of exploring and researching any of the wonders of nature or even our very existence, be it the makeup of universe itself, atoms, relativity or whatever, each layer peeled back is even more revealing of how close humankind still is to just the beginning of knowledge enlightenment. Progress, yes. Are we there yet? Far from it. I suppose a few hundred thousand years, more-or-less, of humankind-like existence, experience and belief is pretty measly compared with the billion or so years that bacteria and viruses have been going about their business!

Naturally all this has created intense debate around deep moral and ethical issues. The debate continues to rage and Isaacson covers it well, including the actions of some of the loose cannons.

And the latter chapters deal with how the field of genetic editing was marshalled by gene editing researchers to rapidly test for the COVID-19 virus and develop vaccines that could be produced at scale by big pharma and research labs to successfully combat the pandemic. Big a crisis as the pandemic is, without this gene technology it would have been a global disaster on a far greater scale.

One disturbing aspect is there are still significant numbers of foolish, misinformed people who are refusing to accept the indisputable factual science involved, reject vaccination and delude themselves on every level. But, looking at this regrettable situation more positively from an existential viewpoint, Darwin will prevail over the longer haul anyway! So let’s adapt to the situation.

Why Selected:
My radar is always up for books written by Walter Isaacson and once again it is amazing how he could submerge in the highly complex field of gene editing and produce this extremely interesting and hyper-pertinent work. He clearly began working on this book some years before the Covid-19 pandemic. What is revealing though, is that before Covid-19 inflicted the damage and loss it has, Isaacson was circumspect and somewhat reserved about the ethics of editing human genes, citing all the usual considerations one might expect. Then, in the heat of battle with the pandemic, when he came face-to-face with the effects and potential scale of the disaster, he changed his tune to a much more pragmatic on-the-ground stance. Interesting turn-around. Amazing the difference between making judgements, decisions, etc., which may impact many, from an elevated and detached perspective, as opposed to the level of the harsh reality around those most affected.

Overall opinion:
A great book for the reader who is interested and curious about the latest advances in the sciences, written by a respected and proven author in the science and technology realm (prior best-selling biographies of DaVinci, Einstein, Jobs).

Content and Style:
Absolutely up to the normal Isaacson premier standards both in content and presentation.

Recommended?
Yes certainly, especially for those comfortable with topics in the science domain, even if just at a basic to moderate level like myself.