The first two rivalries spawned classic book-length accounts — Watson’s controversial “The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA” and the madcap “The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World” by science writer James Shreeve. Now, for CRISPR, biographer Walter Isaacson is making a bid for the canon with his sweeping new book, “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.”
Isaacson’s motivation for writing the book was simple. “There’s a joy that springs from fathoming how something works,” he says. Moreover, CRISPR is the most powerful DNA-editing tool humankind has ever possessed, and “figuring out if and when to edit our genes,” he notes, “will be one of the most consequential questions of the twenty-first century.”
The story of CRISPR’s discovery is convoluted, pinballing from labs in Japan to salt ponds in Spain to a yogurt factory in Wisconsin. In short, CRISPR is an ancient defense system that bacteria use to kill viruses by shredding genetic material. The scientists who discovered and described it were motivated by pure curiosity. Before long, however, they realized that CRISPR’s ability to cut DNA also provided a means to edit DNA.
A joint team led by Emmanuelle Charpentier in Europe and Jennifer Doudna at the University of California at Berkeley eventually succeeded in editing bacterial DNA with CRISPR and won patents for this work. However, a team led by Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute, a private Harvard-MIT partnership, first edited human cells, which are more complicated, more important medically and far more lucrative. In the end, Zhang won the patent for human cells. A furious Doudna challenged this in court, arguing that Zhang had done nothing except take the next, “easy and obvious step” in a technology she pioneered.
Narratively, the two combatants form a perfect contrast: the D.C.-born Doudna at the West Coast public school vs. the immigrant Zhang at the private East Coast lab. Still, while enticed by the drama, Isaacson ultimately concludes that the patent battle wasted time and money. As a counterpoint, he highlights the early microchip industry, where would-be rivals cross-licensed their patents and then got to work actually making things, to everyone’s benefit. There’s a lesson here, he sardonically notes: “Don’t fight over divvying up the proceeds until you finish robbing the stagecoach.”
Whether it’s arcane biochemistry or the ins and outs of patents, Isaacson lays everything out with his usual lucid prose; it’s brisk and compelling and even funny throughout. You’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of both the science itself and how science gets done — including plenty of mischief.
The book’s only real flaw can be seen in the title: “The Code Breaker,” singular. As a biographer — he’s done Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci, among others — Isaacson focused on one main character here, Doudna. It’s an understandable choice. Readers need a human face to attach to the science, and Doudna, who, along with Charpentier, recently won the Nobel Prize for CRISPR, is the most glamorous character in the field. Isaacson isn’t afraid to show her sharp edges, either: She’s deeply competitive and fiercely jealous about credit for her work, so much so that her relationship with Charpentier cooled significantly.
Still, much like the Nobel Prize does, focusing on Doudna skews our perceptions. Science nowadays is highly collaborative, and dozens upon dozens of scientists contributed to perfecting CRISPR. Unfortunately, the Nobel Committee arbitrarily limits the prize to three people. It’s ridiculously restrictive.
Similarly, for all the seminal work Doudna did, CRISPR is not “her” discovery. And however well Isaacson covers the other players, she’s still his singular code breaker, and it’s still her face gracing the cover. The rich get richer. At the very least, he could have done what the Nobel Committee did and elevated both Doudna and Charpentier: Their prize marked the first time two women alone ever split a scientific Nobel — a big milestone, given how women generally have struggled to win recognition in science. Instead, every story here gets filtered through Doudna. Overall, I wish Isaacson had created more of a mosaic, one similar to his history of the early computer industry — “The Innovators,” properly plural.
Toward the end, the book shifts into the ethical dilemmas that CRISPR could unleash if humans start editing our DNA. Rather than trot out the usual cliches about “playing God” with “designer babies,” Isaacson pushes back on the most alarmist fears. “Are we getting a bit overdramatic with all of this handwringing?” he asks. He even takes up the argument, without quite endorsing it, that perhaps we have a duty to edit children, rather than condemn them to the misery of disease and the vagaries of “sexual roulette.”
He has an especially thoughtful discussion about the tension between individuals and society. We might believe that society overall benefits when it contains “people who are short and tall, gay and straight, placid and tormented, blind and sighted.” But if CRISPR gave parents the ability to eliminate one option in each case, it’s not hard to imagine what would happen.
Most geneticists were probably hoping to kick these ethical issues down the road. Unfortunately, a geneticist in China went rogue in 2018 and implanted CRISPR-edited embryos inside two women, in an attempt (probably botched) to render the babies immune to HIV. He was swiftly denounced and is currently in jail.
Isaacson nevertheless argues that the coronavirus pandemic will hasten the acceptance and deployment of CRISPR. After all, CRISPR began long ago as a virus-fighting tool in bacteria, and after more than 118 million coronavirus cases worldwide, engineering our bodies to resist disease seems far less radical. If nothing else, CRISPR might have provided the cheap, rapid testing we needed last spring to nip the pandemic in the bud.
Isaacson also argues that the pandemic will permanently remake science itself, “reminding scientists of the nobility of their mission” and reversing long-standing trends toward commercialized research. Count me skeptical: I suspect that those trends, while on pause, will continue in the After. (Remember when 9/11 was going to usher in an era of bipartisanship and unity?) Still, the pandemic has cooled the battle over credit for CRISPR, as labs like Doudna’s and Zhang’s have pivoted to coronavirus research. For now at least, they’ve shifted the spotlight back to patients, not patents.
The Code Breaker
Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster.
536 pp. $35