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The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

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The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies. When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Doub The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies. When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. She put it aside, thinking it was one of those detective tales she loved. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn’t become scientists, she decided she would. Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book’s author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned ​a curiosity ​of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions. The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. The past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet. Now we are entering a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code. Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! And what about preventing depression? Hmmm…Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids? After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.


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The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies. When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Doub The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies. When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. She put it aside, thinking it was one of those detective tales she loved. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn’t become scientists, she decided she would. Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book’s author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned ​a curiosity ​of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions. The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. The past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet. Now we are entering a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code. Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! And what about preventing depression? Hmmm…Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids? After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.

30 review for The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

  1. 4 out of 5

    Marialyce (absltmom, yaya)

    I have loved all the three books that I was fortunate enough to read by Walter Issacson from Einstein, The Innovators, to Steve Job, this author was able to enthrall me with the main topics he chose to share and write of. However, sad to say, his new book on Jennifer Doudna entitled The Code Breaker really left me feeling disappointed and let down. Wondering why this was, I will preface this that there was a huge amount of science, very technical science which did bog down the story. Now, I do I have loved all the three books that I was fortunate enough to read by Walter Issacson from Einstein, The Innovators, to Steve Job, this author was able to enthrall me with the main topics he chose to share and write of. However, sad to say, his new book on Jennifer Doudna entitled The Code Breaker really left me feeling disappointed and let down. Wondering why this was, I will preface this that there was a huge amount of science, very technical science which did bog down the story. Now, I do realize the importance of this science particularly as we are combating a pandemic, but at times I felt the author tried to immerse himself inferring how smart he was to truly understand and compete with these scientists and researchers. I certainly am not saying that Issacson is not a brilliant man, but his repetition of sections of the tale often made for that horrid sense of boredom to set in. The other thing that annoyed me by the end was that I knew nothing about Dr Doudna, a winner with her former coworker of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2020. Her finding of the CRISPR-Cas9 , along with its cofounder, Emmanuelle Marie Charpentier, opened up brand-new avenues that science can readily travel into a "brave" new world, one where genetically modified DNA was shown and where both the biology, chemistry, engineering, and ethics come into play. I learned much about the science and Jennifer's education, but little of the women. I wanted to be let in on her home life. How did he balance all she did, the research, the traveling, the supervision of many with the demands of being a wife and a mother? We got a brief look into her formative years but I wanted more. How did she relate to her siblings and what exactly was her relationship with her father? (it was hinted at that there were some issues there) In reality, I was looking for the personal to be the main thrust of the book. It's a long story, where a plethora of scientists, doctoral students, post-doctoral candidates, engineers and so forth are presented and it's not that I think these men and women do not deserve their moments, but it tended to cloudy up the telling. In all, it takes commitment to read this book and I have a feeling that its reception will not be the one that this author has received previously in his wonderful works. Sad to say, this is not something I would heartily recommend and one I would caution the reader to be ready to be at times overwhelmed and needing a pause in its reading. Thank you to NetGalley for a copy of this book due out March 9, 2021 Jan and I took on this massive book about Jennifer Doudna, and while we were very interested in some of the story, there were parts that seemed overloaded and repetitive. Without her science background, I would have been lost in some of the detail, but thankfully Jan was able to fill in the gaps. This book will attract people who are interested in science and those who were very interested in discovering the science behind the vaccine for today's pandemic, Covid, possibly eliminating this disease and providing hope for the future through gene editing. It is definitely a brave new world being thrust upon us and the challenges will be many. Once again thanks to my dear friend, Jan, for without her guidance, I would have been left not knowing as much about this important and fascinating work. As Jan has mentioned, there are not enough stars for the work and dedication of the science community making such discoveries and moving mankind forward.

  2. 4 out of 5

    JanB

    3.5 stars Until 2020, only five women, beginning with Marie Curie in 1911, had won a Nobel for chemistry. But 2020 was the year it went to two women, Jennifer Doudna and French colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, for the development of CRISPR, a gene editing technology. Isaacson hones in on Doudna and Charpentier, but he also highlights others in the scientific community whose work led the way and contributed to this new discovery. Some of the more interesting chapters deals with biohackers, rivalr 3.5 stars Until 2020, only five women, beginning with Marie Curie in 1911, had won a Nobel for chemistry. But 2020 was the year it went to two women, Jennifer Doudna and French colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, for the development of CRISPR, a gene editing technology. Isaacson hones in on Doudna and Charpentier, but he also highlights others in the scientific community whose work led the way and contributed to this new discovery. Some of the more interesting chapters deals with biohackers, rivalries, patents, and the personality quirks of the major players, as well as the use of the current technology and it’s ethical implications. With the interesting bits, there was a very heavy emphasis on the science. Too heavy in my opinion. I have a degree in science and still found myself skimming through some of the more dense material. I fear that due to this unfortunate tendency of the author’s, this book will hold limited appeal. In addition, there’s a lot of repetition with the same information and stories told over and over. Finally, the author tends to insert himself into the narrative too much, adding little value. For the above reasons I would recommend this book only with reservations. I’m glad I read it, but I think it would be an even more powerful book had it been condensed and edited. But onto more of the good…. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the significance of CRISPR is more vital than ever. This is the technology that was used to develop Covid tests and more importantly, the Covid vaccine, which was developed so quickly because the groundwork for it was already in place after decades of research. Instead of the usual competition and closely guarded work, there was global cooperation. It was encouraging to see rivalries set aside in the midst of a global health crisis. Along with the usefulness of this technology in fighting Covid, these scientific advances comes ethical questions. Few would argue developing the use of gene editing to treat or prevent diseases such as cancer, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s chorea, cystic fibrosis, and mental illness. But where do we draw the line and who gets to choose where that line is? Should parents be able to choose the gender, skin color, height, and intelligence, along with other ‘desirable” traits of their children? Would we eliminate the diversity and traits that have led to the genius of Einstein, Mozart, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Steve Jobs, Tolstoy? We aren’t there quite yet, but there’s already differences of opinion. These are the questions that future generations will have to answer and consider the implications. This book highlights the importance of scientific inquiry, research, and the practical real-world use of these advances. No one could have predicted how the world would be impacted in 2020/21 from the discoveries of DNA, mRNA, and CRISPr. Science has always been a collaboration that endures through the ages, from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick to Doudna and Charpentier. “At the end of the day, the discoveries are what endure,” Charpentier says. “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.” I hope this book will inspire and encourage more young women to go into the sciences, specifically research. 3.5 stars: 5+ stars for the science community, including Doudna and Charpentier. 2 stars for the extraneous information in telling the story. • This was a buddy read with my friend Marialyce, and while we both had reservations with the way the story was told, it inspired many thoughtful discussions. • I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Publication date is March 9, 2021 by Simon & Schuster

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nyamka Ganni

    CRISPR(Jennifer Doudna et al. 🤩) + Walter Isaacson => AWESOMENESS!! It was good! Very good indeed. Title is a bit misleading. It is not a full biography of Jennifer Doudna alone. Rather, it’s a biography of CRISPR technology and a detailed story of how it was discovered from fascinating and complicated collaborations between numerous great scientists. The story of CRISPR is not done yet. The research is still ongoing and very much alive. This technology is promising us A Brave New World of geneti CRISPR(Jennifer Doudna et al. 🤩) + Walter Isaacson => AWESOMENESS!! It was good! Very good indeed. Title is a bit misleading. It is not a full biography of Jennifer Doudna alone. Rather, it’s a biography of CRISPR technology and a detailed story of how it was discovered from fascinating and complicated collaborations between numerous great scientists. The story of CRISPR is not done yet. The research is still ongoing and very much alive. This technology is promising us A Brave New World of genetic editing. It’s both captivating and terrifying for its multifaceted possibilities. #Key figures in CRISPR and Genome editing - Jennifer Doudna - $NTLA (Intellia Therapeutics), Mammoth Biosciences - Emmanuelle Charpentier - $CRSP (CRISPR Therapeutics) - Feng Zhang - $EDIT (Editas Medicine), Sherlock Biosciences - George Church -a very interesting character - Martin Jinek - Philippe Horvath - Rodolphe Barrangou - He Jiankui - First reported case of germline edited twin babies - Jillian Banfield - Rosalind Franklin - Photo 51 - A - James Watson - A complicated hero of DNA - Gregor Mendel - The legend - And many more #Books and other resources mentioned in the book - Gattaca (1997) - Brave New World - The Double Helix - Human Nature ( A Documentary from Netflix) ...

  4. 4 out of 5

    Literary Redhead

    Isaacson is a biographer’s biographer and THE CODE BREAKER shows why his books totally absorb us. He has a way of revealing absorbing truth about his subjects — in this case, biochemist and gene scientist Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize for the revolutionary DNA-editing tool called CRISPR. Jennifer’s father gave her a copy of The Double Helix when she was six, sparking her keen interest in gene research. Later its author, James Watson, said her CRISPR development was “the most im Isaacson is a biographer’s biographer and THE CODE BREAKER shows why his books totally absorb us. He has a way of revealing absorbing truth about his subjects — in this case, biochemist and gene scientist Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize for the revolutionary DNA-editing tool called CRISPR. Jennifer’s father gave her a copy of The Double Helix when she was six, sparking her keen interest in gene research. Later its author, James Watson, said her CRISPR development was “the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA.” I can only say, “Thank you!” to Jennifer as she races to apply her work to eliminating disease and viruses that include COVID. Her life is a triumph. So is THE CODE BREAKER! 5 of 5 Stars Pub Date 09 Mar 2021 #TheCodeBreaker #NetGalley Thanks to the author, Simon & Schuster, and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Chris Young

    This book represents a risk of sorts for Walter Isaacson - in all of his other biographies Isaacson has written about remarkable personalities with the benefit of knowing their immense impact on the world (Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, etc.) With this venture, however, Isaacson chooses to write about a relatively unknown in Jennifer Doudna with a focus on the potential impact her important work may have on the world in the days to come. Suffice it to say, he made a safe bet, as she will li This book represents a risk of sorts for Walter Isaacson - in all of his other biographies Isaacson has written about remarkable personalities with the benefit of knowing their immense impact on the world (Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, etc.) With this venture, however, Isaacson chooses to write about a relatively unknown in Jennifer Doudna with a focus on the potential impact her important work may have on the world in the days to come. Suffice it to say, he made a safe bet, as she will likely be right up there with those aforementioned names in the pantheon of world game-changers, and that’s what makes this book so special... Not being much of a science person, I had heard of CRISPR before, but had no appreciation for what it really was or its implications for the real world. In this recent (March 2021) release, Isaacson diligently covers the history of CRISPR, its initial discovery, (starting with the Mojica paper in the 1990’s), taking us through the evolution of the thinking behind the core concept in the scientific world and furthermore through the adaptation of CRISPR CAS 9 (a spacer enzyme ) by Drs. Doudna and Charpentier (Noble Laureates now thanks to their work) which enabled them for the first time ever to use the technology to splice and edit DNA strands, thus forever altering man’s relationship with its own genetic composition. The book elegantly caps off, moreover, with the use of the same technology for the recent COVID vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna only months after the discovery of the virus, which I thought was a nice touch! Hands down the most fascinating scientific work I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and I salute Isaacson for making some incredibly complex science easy to understand for the non scientific reader. A must read for all!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dr. Been

    "One fundamental aspect of science will remain the same. It has always been a collaboration across generations, from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick and Franklin to Doudna and Charpentier." I simply have no words to express how much I loved this amazing and historically recorded book. Walter Isaacson! Sir, you have such a diverse taste in science, arts and literature. The books narrates in a story-like manner, the journey from DNA to RNA and from RNA to CRISPR. Science has never ceased to a "One fundamental aspect of science will remain the same. It has always been a collaboration across generations, from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick and Franklin to Doudna and Charpentier." I simply have no words to express how much I loved this amazing and historically recorded book. Walter Isaacson! Sir, you have such a diverse taste in science, arts and literature. The books narrates in a story-like manner, the journey from DNA to RNA and from RNA to CRISPR. Science has never ceased to amaze mankind, and it never will. Being once related very closely to science, I thought I always stay updated with the ongoing research. But how wrong I was. This book uncovers, peel after peel, the wonders each lab, each scientist has performed to make it possible. This past decade changes a lot for the mankind. "This year's [Nobel] prize is about rewriting the code of life." How beautiful. And how magical. This book has been so much to me; a refresher course of molecular biology, a reminder of my love for pipettes and PCR. It took me back to the confusion of repeating an experiment and taking an innovation as an error...getting published, waiting for reviewers comments, learning that we finally are a step ahead, that eureka moment. I would recommend this book to all those who love biology, science or even love mankind. ❤

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ravi Gangwani

    I will break the short quick review in three points … (1) This book starts almost kind of path-breaker, goes super-awesome … Almost every page floating with new information on science, one by one introductions of some path-breaking people, some amazing science back-stories, and a lot more …. till page number 268. (Full Five stars only for only until this part) (2) After page number 268, there are almost more than 130 pages on boring social commentary on social-ethical issues with exception on 'Th I will break the short quick review in three points … (1) This book starts almost kind of path-breaker, goes super-awesome … Almost every page floating with new information on science, one by one introductions of some path-breaking people, some amazing science back-stories, and a lot more …. till page number 268. (Full Five stars only for only until this part) (2) After page number 268, there are almost more than 130 pages on boring social commentary on social-ethical issues with exception on 'Thought experiment' chapter … I mean, this part looks too drag and could have been edited. (This part made me yawn at many places, but still it had a punch of something good, intermittently appearing. ) (3)And last part was on Coronavirus, where how CRISPR helped in designing the tool and other techniques for Covid-19 detection and vaccines. (It was so-so.) This book was a very adventurous ride of passion, involvement, knowledge, persistence, discoveries, competition, rivalries of patents and prizes, big socio-ethical commentaries, evil practices … At some point it literally felt like reading a thrilling science fiction book. It starts with Jennifer Doudna and her quick journey (trust me it is short and sweet with no emotional melodrama) and then it quickly jumps into CRISPR (gene-editing tool) … And then it has a very long start-cast (Some of them were really awe-inspiring like highly competitive Feng-Zhang, bio-hacker Josiah Zayner, charming Emmanuel Charpentier (Co-winner of Nobel 2020 along with Jennifer; others bit prickly : Evil-genius Eric Lander, Rogue scientist -He Juinkai - now convicted who did experiment on human embryo, ) … I mean, it really had large number of people involved in the development of CRISPR ... Thus, this book becomes more about CRISPR than poster face Jennifer. Then somehow it is portrayed as Jennifer is prime safeguard of CRISPR along with rival Feng Zhang and others … But as soon you reach in the middle of the book she looks lost in the midst of a lot of narratives. Overall, I would say, this book is worth a shot and for me, it was all a new door opened that I never knew much before. PS: I liked the leadership-skills of Jennifer Doudna (And though her contribution to world is way beyond) but there are more people involved in the book who look more bubble-bustlingly inspiring than her. But the author was presenting every side of every person - I mean, not sticking to only on good side. And yes more than anything - Full praise for Walter-Issacson for writing them. Also, his writing clearly looked rushed in some last chapters (and use of 'slippery-slope' term a lot) Still it was great overall. PS2: Indian edition had all the pictures in black-n-white. That made me sad when my friend told me American one had colored pictures.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Alisa

    “Why else do we do science? We do it to go after big questions and take on risks. If you don’t try things, you’re never going to have a breakthrough.” [Thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the exciting opportunity to review a Walter Isaacson biography before its release.] I have been intrigued by Isaacson’s meticulous research, narrative writing, and the ability to portray his subjects in a complex yet feeling way ever since I read his book on da Vinci. These same talents are apparent in “Why else do we do science? We do it to go after big questions and take on risks. If you don’t try things, you’re never going to have a breakthrough.” [Thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the exciting opportunity to review a Walter Isaacson biography before its release.] I have been intrigued by Isaacson’s meticulous research, narrative writing, and the ability to portray his subjects in a complex yet feeling way ever since I read his book on da Vinci. These same talents are apparent in “The Code Breaker.” Though I find gene research and the future of gene editing technology fascinating, I admit that some of these concepts can be hard to follow. Luckily, Isaacson carefully spells out the science starting from the basics of DNA, RNA, and enzymes, leading the reader from one scientific breakthrough to the next, including the discovery and implementation of CRISPR. Isaacson portrays Jennifer Doudna as a fascinating, driven, and highly-respected figure in the scientific community. I enjoyed following Doudna’s journey through her academic career and her foray into the business world. I also admired Doudna’s ideal to help change the world for the better; the possibility of diseases and viruses becoming eliminated through gene-editing is a stupendous breakthrough in science and human history. With the current state of the world, of course, the significance of CRISPR is more vital than ever. Though Doudna is the focus of this biography, I appreciated the fact that Isaacson took the time to review other individuals in the CRISPR field, including Doudna’s competitors and former colleagues. Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the section that deals with the moral implications of gene editing. As Isaacson reflects, there is a difference between editing genes for treatment/prevention of diseases and enhancing them to produce desirable traits (eye color, height, intelligence, and so forth). At what point do we draw the line, and who decides if there is a line that cannot be crossed? I enjoyed Isaacson's reflections on the diversity of human nature, and the positives of qualities that are often seen as detrimental (for instance, his argument that mental illnesses can lead to astounding creativity and works of art, such as in the case of Van Gogh). Would eliminating mental illness from the human gene pool, Isaacson asks, deprive the world of potential Van Goghs? How much diversity and potential would we lose if we eradicated "less desirable" genes? Moreover, do we have the right to “play God”? Could gene editing lead to a loss of empathy and humility? While this is a fascinating thought experiment, it is also astounding to think that future generations may have to answer these questions and face their implications. At its core, this book is about creativity, innovation, collaboration, and competition. It illustrates humanity’s trials and endeavors to unravel the mysteries of nature – and to manipulate the very code of nature for the benefit of our species.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ula

    If you have any interest in science at all, you've probably heard about CRISPR technology, but as it is a very recent discovery, there are not many books on this topic. In "Code Breaker" you will find all the details about this exciting discovery and its aftermath. I think that is the most interesting aspect of this book, however, it does not entirely justify its volume. Of course also interesting is the story of the book's heroine, Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. There are still too few wom If you have any interest in science at all, you've probably heard about CRISPR technology, but as it is a very recent discovery, there are not many books on this topic. In "Code Breaker" you will find all the details about this exciting discovery and its aftermath. I think that is the most interesting aspect of this book, however, it does not entirely justify its volume. Of course also interesting is the story of the book's heroine, Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. There are still too few women in science, so I am always happy with celebrating their accomplishments and creating role models for girls. Alas, I am not a fan of Walter Isaacson's style. I've found this biography too dry and superficial. I couldn’t imagine prof. Doudna as a real, alive human being nor understand how exactly her work looks like. It's a pity because I am truly interested in science and I love reading about the realities of lab work. Nonetheless, I think that people who liked previous books of this author will find this one also to their liking. Thanks to the publisher, Simon & Schuster, and NetGalley for the advance copy of this book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lori

    been ill, miss GR! coming back this week! review to come terrific book, much wider in scope than the title and cover make it seem* *note: contents do not include future of the human race

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tfalcone

    Thank you Net Galley for the free ARC. Two lessons I have learned from this book: it takes a village to come up with scientific progress and science has become very commercial. The best part was the idea of using CRISPR to make humans immune to Corona Virus. Interesting that some viruses have evolved anti crispr genes.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Trike

    This is easily the most up-to-date nonfiction book I’ve ever read. The story culminates in the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October 2020, with follow-up interviews in December, and Isaacson adding final thoughts in January 2021. This was published March 9, 2021. Given how slow publishing usually is, that’s honestly impressive. This is a deep dive into gene editing via CRISPR and other techniques, but it’s never difficult to understand. The fact much of the science involves viruses This is easily the most up-to-date nonfiction book I’ve ever read. The story culminates in the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October 2020, with follow-up interviews in December, and Isaacson adding final thoughts in January 2021. This was published March 9, 2021. Given how slow publishing usually is, that’s honestly impressive. This is a deep dive into gene editing via CRISPR and other techniques, but it’s never difficult to understand. The fact much of the science involves viruses and Isaacson was already writing the book when the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hit is a coincidental lucky break for him. It gives the book added relevance and urgency above and beyond the thorny issues of modifying genes, because this technology was used directly to both test for the virus and create vaccines for it. There is an extended middle section that’s all about who published which paper first and who gets to claim what patent for which aspect of the tech, and after a bit I was honestly getting bored — but then Isaacson brings it all together with the far more interesting discussion about who gets to decide if, when and how we get to edit the genes of our children, our food, or all the viruses, with much of it coming down to who has the money, as it always does. Suddenly, the institutions which control the patents get to call the shots, leading to the inequality of access to lifesaving medicine. As William Gibson has famously observed, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” It also leads to a discussion about secrecy and the decreased lack of sharing of information among scientists, because everyone is now chasing the money, as well as prizes and awards. The fact that in early 2020 everyone involved was able to put all of that aside in order to combat this novel coronavirus was actually quite inspirational, a nice 180 pivot from the cynicism of capitalism. There’s hope for us yet. Bigger picture, this is a devilishly thorny conundrum. On the one hand, CRISPR gene editing promises to cure tons of diseases. A woman in Mississippi was cured of her sickle cell anemia via CRISPR techniques (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-s...), a real boon for her. But this is so easy to do that it can be perverted into a horrific weapon, one which could unleash a devastating plague upon the world from a single crazy person working in their basement. Gotta take the good with the bad, I guess. To-may-to, to-mah-to. And people are petty and selfish, so it’s not like we can count on them to make good decisions. I mean, the woman with sickle cell experienced extreme pain and fatigue her entire life, yet she still chose to have three kids. Kids who could potentially suffer just as much as she had by inheriting this terrible genetic affliction, kids she had a hard time caring for because of her debilitating condition. I understand that the urge to reproduce is strong, but that seems particularly selfish to me. I have three chronic illnesses and I chose to not have kids precisely because I would not be able to devote to them the energy and attention that they deserve. One of the Chinese scientists featured in the book has already genetically engineered some babies to be HIV-free. That’s a good thing, but as Isaacson points out (as have a whole host of Science Fiction authors), it’s a slippery slope to go from editing out genetic abnormalities which cause things like breast cancer and heart disease to editing babies to be taller, prettier, smarter, stronger. Isaacson quotes Huxley’s Brave New World, which features an entire society of genetically engineered people, including not-so-bright underclasses born to serve the rich upper class. CRISPR allows for that to happen. (Talk about prescient, Huxley wrote BNW in 1931!) If given the choice, would I make my kids into superintelligent perfect physical specimens? Hell yes I would. Most people would. So I’m glad Isaacson includes that discussion. He comes down solidly in favor of such things, assuming the benefits outweigh the detriments, but I’m not so sure. This book is definitely worth your time. He gets into the theoretical aspects of the technology, but also reveals the down-and-dirty infighting and competition of modern science. It’s extremely well-rounded in that regard.

  13. 4 out of 5

    NinaB

    The subtitle of this book is a little misleading. Yes, it is about Nobel Prize Winner Jennifer Doudna’s life and career, but only as much as they relate to her invention, the CRISPR gene editing technology, that made her and long-time collaborator and co-Nobel winner Emanuelle’s Charpentier, famous. This excellent book can be divided into 4 parts. It starts off with Doudna’s biography, introduction to James Watson’s work with DNA, her fortuitous interest to work with RNA when everyone else was fo The subtitle of this book is a little misleading. Yes, it is about Nobel Prize Winner Jennifer Doudna’s life and career, but only as much as they relate to her invention, the CRISPR gene editing technology, that made her and long-time collaborator and co-Nobel winner Emanuelle’s Charpentier, famous. This excellent book can be divided into 4 parts. It starts off with Doudna’s biography, introduction to James Watson’s work with DNA, her fortuitous interest to work with RNA when everyone else was focused on DNA and her eventual rise in the scientific community, culminating in her Nobel win. The second part covers the discovery of the CRISPR gene and the race to be able to use it to edit genes more accurately than what was available previously. The CRISPR gene is the star of this book and that is why I enjoyed it far more than I expected. Basically speaking, it is a gene found in bacteria that acts as the bacteria’s immune defense against viruses. It stores information of previously encountered viruses that it uses to fight against future encounters. Scientists discovered it can be manipulated to find, cut and replace gene segments in order to fix many genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington’s disease. CRISPR has the amazing ability to find specific gene segments in DNA and fix it. In the case of sickle cell anemia, which is caused by one base letter off in the patient’s 3 billion long base pairs, CRISPR has been proven to heal patients from the disease! This new genetic editing technology seems promising! Imagine a world where debilitating diseases could be fixed easily and quickly at the genetic level. But, having this ability to gene edit comes with countless ethical questions. This is the third part of the book. Doudna leads in the assessing of the implications of the CRISPR tech and the making of public policies in order not to abuse its use. Not only can CRISPR fix genetic diseases, it can also be used to make designer babies. Nobody knows as of yet what the long term effects will be of the free use of gene editing that can be utilized to get the desired outcome in our progenies, or even our current bodies. Creating perfect babies will surely eliminate diversity (reminded me of a line from The Incredibles, “If everyone is super, no one will be.”) and remove those characteristics, flaws they may be, that make us uniquely human. Also still unknown to us is the full function of the genes in our bodies. Scientists discovered that the gene that causes sickle cell anemia also fights against malaria. Finally, the fourth part covers the use of the CRISPR gene to detect and fight against COVID-19. This part explained the nature of the pandemic-causing virus we’ve all become too familiar with, more clearly to me. I gained a greater trust in the vaccine, though I am still a little cautious about it. The mRNA vaccine is a new technology, but the explanation in the book debunks myths that have been going around about the vaccine’s potential to alter our genes. As a Biology graduate, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Not only did it give me helpful knowledge that pertains to the current medical hysteria plaguing us, but it also gives me a greater appreciation for the brilliant minds that come up with the most astonishing inventions. As a Christian, this book affirms my faith. The genetic code is strictly a code that sustains and propagates life. DNA makes specific proteins following the specific code sequence needed for the task, much like in computer programming, and it is not based on the gene’s shape or chemical component. Think of its precision when you consider one base letter off in 3 billion base letter DNA causes the awful sickle cell disease! The existence of the genetic code, its efficiency and precision all scream the fact that there had to be an intelligent Designer, i.e., God, behind it.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    Walter Isaacson has produced another biography of a genius of consequence to the world. “The Code Breaker” is about Jennifer Doudna, who has pioneered, along with a number of outstanding colleagues and competitors, the science of CRISPR and techniques for editing human genes - as well as recently winning the Nobel Prize for her work (along with Emmanuelle Charpentier). The story of Professor Doudna life to date is a terrific story that is well told. Along with this, Isaacson provides his own eff Walter Isaacson has produced another biography of a genius of consequence to the world. “The Code Breaker” is about Jennifer Doudna, who has pioneered, along with a number of outstanding colleagues and competitors, the science of CRISPR and techniques for editing human genes - as well as recently winning the Nobel Prize for her work (along with Emmanuelle Charpentier). The story of Professor Doudna life to date is a terrific story that is well told. Along with this, Isaacson provides his own efforts to translating the science of genetics, gene splicing, molecular biology, and other dark realms into terms that more general (and non scientific) readers can appreciate - at least a little. The book is important and hugely relevant to our current situation with COVID-19. To appreciate this, consider that with the last pandemic of a scale comparable to the current one - the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 - science did not win the battle. The flu did its deadly work and moved on. In fact, we did not know what viruses were at the time and did not identify the virus behind the Spanish Flu definitively until the 1990s. Compare that to COVID-19, whose genetic signature was fully identified and distributed within the scientific community. From there, dozen or so vaccines were in the works fairly rapidly, with vaccination well underway in the US and Europe (and hopefully soon elsewhere) within a year. The leading vaccines have effectiveness scores in the 80-90+% range, depending on where you get your statistics. This is in comparison to the much lower effectiveness we are used to with the annual flu vaccines. Effective vaccines produced in record time, at least compared with earlier efforts. How did that happen? How did they do that? How do the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work? The science of RNA and the techniques for how to do things and edit genes towards some intended effect are behind this. Isaacson’s book is about that science and the people whose work initiated the area and moved it along. He even includes some chapters on COVID-19 towards the end of the book and how typically cutthroat academic research could turn cooperative to fight the virus. Isaacson’s writing is, as usual, magnificent. He writes well about science. He also does a good job of writing about genius. That is trickier, in that by definition genius is not easily recognized or described by those of us who are not geniuses. It just seems like mystery to many. At the same time, Isaacson tries to stay clear of hero worship and challenges everyone he interviews regarding the conflicts and murkier issues of the story he is telling. He does that here to great effect. Related to this is how different knowledge realms come to interact to produce world changing outcomes. That is true for different scientific specialties. It also involves the interactions of science, medicine, law, and government. This is well covered in the book, especially the interactions of big science with law and government in such matters as intellectual property protections and public health and safety. I could go on, but I would rather people just read the book. Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs was a really good book, but it is possible that “The Code Breaker” will prove to be his best and most important yet.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Wendelle

    This is an incredible read. This book elucidates and elaborates a quite esoteric field, gene editing, that's on the cusp of being transformative for the human race. It explains the foundational science in a way that's immensely readable for the layman, and dramatizes in a pulse-racing way the intense rivalries and collaborations that occurred in academic biology and the enterprise of biotechnology in the heady race to establish claims on being the first to discovery or invention, and stake out p This is an incredible read. This book elucidates and elaborates a quite esoteric field, gene editing, that's on the cusp of being transformative for the human race. It explains the foundational science in a way that's immensely readable for the layman, and dramatizes in a pulse-racing way the intense rivalries and collaborations that occurred in academic biology and the enterprise of biotechnology in the heady race to establish claims on being the first to discovery or invention, and stake out patents and startups. It also articulates for us the complex and quite enigmatic and reticent figure in the middle of the gene editing breakthrough-- the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. She is incredibly high-impact and ingenious but also made a discovery that was poised for realization by other rival teams, suggesting a convergence of insights in scientific history; she thrives in an academic laboratory that was hugely funded by government grants, yet she patented and privatized the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for a venture-capitalist-funded startup; she gives rightful credit to others in documenting and writing up journal papers, but she also ambitiously pushes her team to expedite publishing their results and establish their priority in garnering conclusions; she is cautious about the applications of gene editing yet she cooperates with the US Dept. of Defense on a project exploring the potential generation of enhanced super-soldiers. The last third of the book is devoted to a cursory exploration of the ethical dilemmas surrounding the outlook of gene-editing humans in a way that will be heritable for our offspring for all time-- a startling development that is the stuff of science fiction, yet confronts us now. It also gives an introduction to the arguments of the different scientific factions -- from enthusiastic to denunciatory-- that have sprouted around the issue of using gene editing on ourselves. This book crests to nearly 500 pages but reads more like a stimulating thriller than a dry tome. Its authorship by an august writer, the editor-in-chief of Time who has penned the definitive biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein in the most recent times, is important because it will help spur widespread discussions and general consciousness of this landmark scientific threshold of humanity, that is sure to impact all of us in society for years to come. With the prospect of gene editing in humans on the precipice as the practical technologies for it are now realized, the human race is facing the Rubicon: Should we use this technique on ourselves, not only for medical treatments but for heritable enhancements of our sensory capabilities and intellectual limitations? Would this technology be available only for the rich, escalating inequality and sparking a permanently tiered class structure of superior and ordinary, subpar humans, following the dictates of a new destiny-- not the genetic destinies we were born with, but the genetic destinies our parents could afford on the 'genetics supermarket'? The dream, or the nightmare, of humanity is about to begin, and this book is a great guide to this new horizon. Not rated 5 stars because the author doesn't criticize or challenge Dr. Watson's views on race vehemently enough

  16. 5 out of 5

    Blair

    The Code Breaker is really three or four books in one and not a single book. First, it’s a biography of Jennifer Doudna, an extremely talented scientist, who together with Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020. Isaacson excels at these biographies and has covered a number “Curious” people including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. Second, it's history book of genetics and gene editing. It covers all the important milestones starting Charles Darwin an The Code Breaker is really three or four books in one and not a single book. First, it’s a biography of Jennifer Doudna, an extremely talented scientist, who together with Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020. Isaacson excels at these biographies and has covered a number “Curious” people including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. Second, it's history book of genetics and gene editing. It covers all the important milestones starting Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel of the middle of the 19th Century, adds the achievements of James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin and their peers and collaborators in the middle of the 20th Century and then it moves into the journey that Jennifer Doudna took to better understand RNA Third, it's a science book of how CRISPR works. It goes into great microbiological and biochemical details about how bacteria has learned to fight invading viruses through Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats or “CRISPR” sequences and nearby genes. Fourth, it briefly presents the ethics of using CRISPR technologies to treatment human ailments versus enhance our performance. I liked the book’s historical perspective, the balanced coverage of Jennifer Doudna and her competitors, and the important roles than many scientists took in understanding and applying CRISPR and COVID. The author Walter Isaacson was very fair and stopped his narrative when he felt there was a conflict between presenting Doudna in a good light and casting a shadow over her competitors. The full disclosure and recognition of potential bias was important and he handled it well. The author was also "hands on" as he spent time in a lab, learning how to edit genes using CRISPR. It’s an amazing technology and very important that he would immerse himself in doing – not just writing about – the work. He too is very curious. Also impressive, is the research and detail that Walter Isaacson went into to help us understand this new and likely game changing technology. It was very timely as we are all now concerned with COVID and the discussions on how CRISPR can detect and potentially destroy COVID are very important. That said, I felt the book could use was more diagrams like those found on page 133 (i.e., How CRISPR works). While he did a good job in explaining how DNA, RNA, Proteins, Enzyme and CRISPR molecules work the process is fairly complicated and these simple diagrams could have really helped the reader – especially those who are “visual learners”. I also thought that the ethics discussion was good but could be the subject of another book. That has to be balanced against the length of the book which was already 480 pages of good material. Overall great job and well worth the read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Peggy

    This book is complicated, so my review will be also. The first part of the book is basically a biography of Jennifer Doudna, focusing on her academic and research career. In this part, there is an explanation of DNA, RNA and it's various forms, and a plethora of acronyms (for which a term glossary would have been quite helpful, but is not provided in the text.) I have significant laboratory medicine training, so the biochemistry presented here was not a challenge. Some of the terminology and acro This book is complicated, so my review will be also. The first part of the book is basically a biography of Jennifer Doudna, focusing on her academic and research career. In this part, there is an explanation of DNA, RNA and it's various forms, and a plethora of acronyms (for which a term glossary would have been quite helpful, but is not provided in the text.) I have significant laboratory medicine training, so the biochemistry presented here was not a challenge. Some of the terminology and acronyms have changed since my training days, so these required more tracking. Can a non-science major follow this part? Tougher question. Would recommend trying though, as the latter part of the book raises significant questions which we all should have a say in answering. The parts of the book on academic politics, academic one-upmanship and patent wars are a part of the story, but less interesting and somewhat distressing personally. The bigger questions come near the end of the book. This area of scientific endeavor has really opened a Pandora's box. Gene editing can be done by anyone with internet access and a payment method. It is not confined to Level 4 biohazard labs. The idea home brewers can change a bacterium's antibiotic resistance profile is chilling. Changing viruses? Equally so. Slippery slopes. These Isaacson outlines fairly accurately. Mucking with a human germline genome? Not ready for prime time. I am amazed that some of the scientists involved are even considering it. Appalled that it actually happened. A human genome contains billions of base pairs. How do we know any edit launched will be specific enough to only hit the intended target? Answer, we don't. Unintentionally burdening future generations with deleterious, unintended edits, is a real possibility here. This part of the book is worth the read, and active discussion. As to COVID, interesting to read how various vaccines work. Nice to see the scientific community come somewhat together in a pandemic, if still protecting the commercial patent aspect. The speed with which our country was able to lauch effective vaccines would not have been possible without the DNA and RNA research done to date. There are clear medical treatments available for devastating diseases also related to the study of these and related cellular mechanisms. There is still hope at the bottom of Pandora's box. But we need to use a lot of wisdom also.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kasa Cotugno

    This is the latest from Walter Isaacson whose limitless interest in so many subjects results in exceedingly well researched and interesting biographies. I must admit finding that the quirky personalities he includes more interesting than the actual science writing which was so far over my head, it was totally inaccessible to me. Yet, the personality of Jennifer Doudna, which occupies the central position, was fascinating, and I'm glad I read it. This is the latest from Walter Isaacson whose limitless interest in so many subjects results in exceedingly well researched and interesting biographies. I must admit finding that the quirky personalities he includes more interesting than the actual science writing which was so far over my head, it was totally inaccessible to me. Yet, the personality of Jennifer Doudna, which occupies the central position, was fascinating, and I'm glad I read it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    If you have received either the Moderna or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19, you benefiting from a biomedical tool called CRISPR. CRISPR technology enabled scientists to create both vaccines in record time, bypassing the clumsy and time-consuming methods employed in vaccine development in the past. The historic breakthrough that led to the now-widespread use of CRISPR in biomedical labs the world over came only in 2012. And it won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry eight years later for a If you have received either the Moderna or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19, you benefiting from a biomedical tool called CRISPR. CRISPR technology enabled scientists to create both vaccines in record time, bypassing the clumsy and time-consuming methods employed in vaccine development in the past. The historic breakthrough that led to the now-widespread use of CRISPR in biomedical labs the world over came only in 2012. And it won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry eight years later for a remarkable woman at the University of California, Berkeley, named Jennifer Doudna. Four main characters Doudna’s work, and that of her students, post-docs, and colleagues as well as collaborators and rivals from other labs are the subject of Walter Isaacson’s gripping account in The Code Breaker. The publisher markets the book as a biography, and Doudna is the central subject. But there are “four main characters: Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, George Church, and Feng Zhang.” And they share the spotlight with dozens of other scientists as well as a handful of iconic figures in the biomedical establishment, including Francis Collins (National Institutes of Health), David Baltimore (California Institute of Technology), and James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix). Much more than a biography, this is the story of CRISPR and its potential to upend the way medicine is practiced in the twenty-first century. CRISPR technology explained “The gene-editing tool that Doudna and others developed in 2012,” Isaacson notes, “is based on a virus-fighting trick used by bacteria, which have been battling viruses for more than a billion years.” Bacteria produce proteins to combat attackers. These proteins are catalytic chemicals called enzymes that target a virus’ genetic code and carve out tiny snippets of its RNA or DNA. By inserting those snippets into its own genome, the bacteria can recognize and defeat a similar virus that attacks in the future. Doudna, Zhang, and their collaborators use some of those chemicals (known as CRISPR-associated enzymes, or Cas) to battle disease in humans. One specific enzyme, Cas9, turns out to be the Swiss Army Knife of the process. And it’s simple to use this technique. With the proper tools, all easy to obtain online, students in college labs or biohackers in their basements can master it without difficulty. Five overarching themes Five themes dominate Isaacson’s account of CRISPR technology: the biological versus the digital revolution, collaboration, competition, the global scope of Big Science, and the challenges of bioethics. The genetic code vs. computer code “The first half of the twentieth century,” Isaacson writes, “featured a revolution driven by physics. . . The second half . . . was an information-technology era . . . Now we have entered a third and even more momentous era, a life-science revolution.” The human race now possesses the ability to change the course of evolution. “Biology has become the new tech,” Isaacson asserts. “Young innovators are buzzing about genetic code rather than computer code. The atmosphere is . . . reminiscent of when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs frequented the early personal computer shows, except this time the rock stars are Jennifer Doudna and Feng Zhang.” Isaacson adds, “people of my generation became fascinated by personal computers and the web. We made sure our kids learned how to code. Now we will have to make sure they understand the code of life.” In the future, historians will determine “whether the digital revolution or the life-science revolution will end up being the most important.” The jury is out. Collaboration and teamwork In science today, little is accomplished by lone investigators working in isolation. The questions scientists face are simply too big, too complex, and frequently too expensive for all but major institutions. Science in the twenty-first century involves “an iterative dance among basic scientists, practical inventors, and business leaders.” Sometimes philanthropic foundations or venture capitalists and government institutions such as DARPA or China’s equivalent must become involved as well. In The Code Breaker, Isaacson highlights three of those institutions: UC Berkeley’s Department of Molecular & Cell Biology, the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Teamwork within a lab and collaboration with others elsewhere are almost always essential. Doudna (born 1964) did not win the 2020 Nobel Prize alone for the development of CRISPR technology. She shared it with her French collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier (born 1968), who was working at the time in Sweden. Both led laboratory work that involved teams of students and post-docs. “The effort to develop CRISPR . . . involved microbe-hunters working with geneticists, structural biologists, biochemists, and computer geeks.” But their breakthrough also came in part because of work conducted at labs elsewhere in Europe and the United States. Future collaborators they met and insights they gained at face-to-face meetings and conferences played a role as well. And they shared other major awards with some of those scientists, with whom they were in a high-pressure race to be the first to announce their results. Competition The history of science is rife with examples of intense and sometimes bitter competition that led to some of the biggest breakthroughs in humanity’s understanding of the world around us. The quarrel between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the discovery of the calculus. Charles Darwin’s rush to publish The Origin of Species because his younger colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, seemed likely to scoop him. James Watson and Francis Crick‘s competition with Linus Pauling to unravel the secrets of DNA. And similar competition played itself out in the early months of 2012 in the multi-polar race to harness the power of CRISPR technology. Dueling scientific papers “To what extent do discoveries depend on individual genius, and to what extent has teamwork become more critical?” Isaacson asks in his introduction. “Has the competition for prizes and patents undermined collaboration?” In the pages that follow, he seems to suggest that the intense competition that characterized the rush to understand CRISPR did, in fact, jeopardize not just good feeling but the potential for productive cooperation between the labs led by Doudna and Zhang, the two principal competitors. The competition devolved into dueling scientific papers that minimized each other’s accomplishments and an “epic patent battle” between them that is “still dragging along.” COVID-19 changed everything But the ill feeling fell by the wayside when the time came early in the COVID-19 pandemic as the two superstars and scores of other research scientists rushed to share insights as they learned to apply CRISPR technology to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And that collaboration helped scientists at both labs develop potential treatments for the coronavirus as well as remarkable diagnostic tools that show promise of revolutionizing the practice of medicine in years to come. The global scope of science Throughout the pages of The Code Breaker, despite the primary focus on Doudna and her colleagues in Berkeley, and the secondary emphasis on Zhang, the action shifts around the world as other players enter the scene. Scientists in France, Lithuania, Germany, England, Spain, Japan, the Netherlands, and China as well as the United States all appear in the story. And two researchers working on yogurt for a Danish food ingredient company achieved an important breakthrough, too; one of them even shared major awards with Doudna and Zhang. He is now the Editor-in-Chief of The CRISPR Journal. Ethical questions emerge Isaacson explores in depth the ethical questions raised by the new ability afforded by CRISPR technology to alter the human genome. As he makes clear, there are two ways in which this can be accomplished. In one, somatic editing, a scientist targets a single gene such as the one that leads to sickle-cell anemia. If successful, the intervention will save patients from the intense pain and early death of the disease but have no impact on their descendants. Germline editing Germline editing does, however. Scientists alter the human genome by adding or removing genes, and the patients’ descendants will all experience the benefit (or harm) that results. And the changes are irreversible. Isaacson explores a number of thought experiments that illustrate just how fraught with danger an intervention of this sort might be. “How do we distinguish between traits that are true disabilities,” Isaacson asks, “and ones that are disabilities mainly because society is not good at adapting for them?” For example, many deaf persons insist their inability to hear is a gift, not a handicap. Of course, using CRISPR to eliminate a gene or genes that code for some dread disease poses fewer ethical questions. But what about altering the genome in the test tube to enhance the intelligence or the physical strength of the baby that will be born? What about coding for blond hair and blue eyes or an extra eight inches in height? Assuming it’s possible to do these things without dreadful side effects, is it right? The world’s first designer human babies Isaacson traces the troubled story of He Jianqui, the US-educated Chinese scientist who created the first genetically edited human babies in 2018. He made twins Lulu and Nana resistant to HIV. But he may also have caused other, unintentional changes in the process because of flaws in the procedures he followed. After a world outcry, Isaacson notes, “He was sentenced to three years in prison, fined $430,000, and banned for life from working in reproductive science.” Peering into the future Supersoldiers. Designer babies. Even the loss of diversity in our species, as parents widely adopt “enhancements” made possible by gene editing. And it seems to be a given that if scientists make something possible, others will find ways to profit from it. “Figuring out if and when to edit our genes will be one of the most consequential questions of the twenty-first century,” Isaacson asserts. “We have to face the potential conflict between what is desired by the individual versus what is good for human civilization.” But the world’s two hundred nations have never been able to agree on much of anything. Is it likely a consensus will emerge on how to regulate gene editing? Democratizing medicine The dark side of CRISPR technology’s potential notwithstanding, a great deal more good can come of this remarkable tool. “Once the delivery mechanisms are worked out,” Isaacson notes, “CRISPR-based systems [developed by Doudna and Zhang’s labs] will be able to treat and protect people without having to activate the body’s own immune system, which can be quirky and delicate.” And other tools they’ve pioneered will “democratize and decentralize medicine. The most important next steps will be innovations in ‘microfluidics,’ which involves channeling tiny amounts of liquid in a device, and then connecting the information to our cell phones. That will allow us all, in the privacy of our homes, to test our saliva and blood for hundreds of medical indicators, monitor our health conditions on our phones, and share the data with doctors and researchers.” Would breakthroughs of that magnitude justify the downside posed by CRISPR’s ethically challenged outcomes? I’m on Jennifer Doudna’s side. But you be the judge. About the author Image of Walter Isaacson, author of this book about CRISPR technologyWalter Isaacson in 2011. Walter Isaacson (born 1952) is best known as the author of bestselling biographies of Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and others. He is sometimes thought of in the same breath as eminent biographers such as David McCullough, Robert A. Caro, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. But writing appears to be a sideline for this amazing man. He is currently Leonard Lauder Professor of American History and Values at Tulane University and lives in New Orleans. In the past, he served as President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair and CEO of CNN, chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and the editor of Time as well as other appointive posts inside and out of government.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Val

    This is a 5-star multidisciplinary book. It is a 5-star biography, a 5-star science book, a 5-star legal brief on patent law, a 5-star book on genetic diseases, and a 5-star treatise on the ethics of gene editing and who should decide how and when gene editing can be used. I’ve read other Isaacson biographies, and this one has been my favorite so far (hopefully he is writing more). The science of CRISPR and gene editing tools in general is fascinating. We have a vaccine for COVID19 because of th This is a 5-star multidisciplinary book. It is a 5-star biography, a 5-star science book, a 5-star legal brief on patent law, a 5-star book on genetic diseases, and a 5-star treatise on the ethics of gene editing and who should decide how and when gene editing can be used. I’ve read other Isaacson biographies, and this one has been my favorite so far (hopefully he is writing more). The science of CRISPR and gene editing tools in general is fascinating. We have a vaccine for COVID19 because of the work Doudna and other collaborators and competitors have done. Of course, in any discussion of gene editing there is significant public debate, as well as debate among the scientists themselves, over the simple point Jeff Goldblum’s character makes in Jurassic Park - once we find we CAN do a thing, we should stop and ask whether we SHOULD do a thing, thinking through the possible consequences to the future of humanity. Fortunately, Doudna was fascinated from her youth with DNA and how it is put together in a sequential structure, all because her father left her a book he thought might interest her. This started her journey toward understanding what science could do, and the role she would play in what science CAN do now. Yet, this is why I enjoyed this book so much. The last 1/4 of the book is primarily about the ethics debate, but it is not done in an alarmist way. Isaacson skillfully presents various viewpoints about potential uses for gene editing tools, ranging from scientists to doctors and medical researchers, to agriculturists, to military planners, to athletic directors and sports general managers, to parents wanting their children to have every possible tool for a better chance at success in life. The chapters that address the ethics debates and especially the chapter on thought-provoking scenarios to consider where you as a reader would stand on gene editing in each instance, made this a lively, informative, and intellectually stimulating book. In addition to a biography of Doudna, Isaacson provides basic bios of scientists whose work and writings influenced her to pursue science and sparked her creative ideas about RNA. The book also provides bio sketches of Doudna’s science partners, grad student researchers, and other scientists who were racing with or against Doudna to unlock the secrets of CRISPR and creating gene editing tools. There were rivalries, questions about who was first and who borrowed ideas from whom, and these led to legal challenges over patents and dates of discovery that took many years to untangle between 2012 and 2020. Yes, some of the patent and discovery disputes continued on even into virtual hearings during the COVID19 pandemic, while the CRISPR gene editing tool was used to create the COVID19 vaccines. There is an entire chapter just on the patent dispute, which I thought might be dry reading, but it was actually very interesting to learn about how legal credit is given in scientific discoveries and how patent courts determine whether some uses for discoveries would have been inevitable adaptations. The scientists working on CRISPR gene editing tools were remarkably forgiving of borrowed ideas and generous in their credit to each other, compared with other professions I’ve observed. Sure, some were miffed at each other at times, and there were some hurt feelings over inadequate or no credit given for some breakthroughs, but overall, the body of scientists in this field were not the murderous cutthroats we see in professions where money is all that matters. Many of the scientists Isaacson interviewed hailed the CRISPR gene editing tool as the greatest scientific discovery since the DNA double-helix, and perhaps greater, because humans became the first “species” on the planet to empower itself to consciously alter its genetic code. Of course, this conjures up fears of eugenics, misapplications of science in discriminatory or even criminal ways, so-called “designer babies,” and whether scientists should be “playing God” by altering human genes. Isaacson, through a broad range of interviews, lays out responses to these concerns and does not do so dismissively. There are real ethical questions involved in altering genes, especially hereditary codes passed to future generations, because we have the capability now to permanently change human genetics. Humanity could wipe out sickle-cell disease that disproportionately afflicts black people from Africa and African-Americans. Humanity could wipe out terrible Huntington’s disease, and other similar diseases that cause long-term suffering, memory loss, and loss of physical control. This would not just be gone from one generation, but forever, in all future generations. How society uses CRISPR gene editing tools will likely be the most consequential set of ethical decisions the world ever has needed to make. This is why Isaacson’s chapter on thought scenarios is so valuable. It will make you think more deeply about whether you and your family would want to use the CRISPR gene editing technology for some of the purposes discussed in this book. The more you think about all the different ways gene editing could be used, the more questions you probably will have. Brilliant scientists like Doudna and the others described in this book are asking those questions too, and the future possibilities at this point seem endless. A 5-star read and in the running for best science book of 2021, although it’s still March and I’m sure to read a few more science books this year!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Laura Hill

    A fascinating and timely story about the life sciences revolution (specifically gene editing) and the Covid bomb that ignited a community already poised at the brink of discovery — all told through the biographical lens of recent Nobel winner Jennifer Doudna. Isaacson is a skilled biographer and synthesizer. He has an unsurpassed ability to explain very complex concepts in accessible terms. I’ve read four of his books and have been impressed by his ability to explain well things I already know ( A fascinating and timely story about the life sciences revolution (specifically gene editing) and the Covid bomb that ignited a community already poised at the brink of discovery — all told through the biographical lens of recent Nobel winner Jennifer Doudna. Isaacson is a skilled biographer and synthesizer. He has an unsurpassed ability to explain very complex concepts in accessible terms. I’ve read four of his books and have been impressed by his ability to explain well things I already know (Steve Jobs and computers) and things in which I have little background and zero aptitude (Leonardo Da Vinci and 15th century art). His descriptions of CRISPR (DNA sequences that enable the gene editing at the heart of the book) and the myriad ways it was discovered, applied, and deployed do not disappoint. What I liked best? You actually feel the zing of scientific discovery as he describes the evolution of gene editing tools and techniques and the researchers who made it happen. Getting to know the researchers was almost as interesting as learning the science — to the point where Jennifer Doudna — while thoroughly admirable — did not have a personality that eclipsed the other players, making it feel less like a biography and more like a community portrait. Every one of the key contributors was profiled in a succinct but insightful way: James Watson of DNA discovery fame (more on him later); Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church (who felt trapped in the present when he should be in the future); Doudna’s co-Nobelist and co-discoverer of the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors” the peripatetic Emmanuelle Charpentier who likes to keep herself on edge and not get too comfy; Feng Zhang — credited (but bitterly contested) with applying CRISPR to the human genome; and the many, many additional researchers pursuing careers in the field. In addition to the science and the scientists, Isaacson spends a fair amount of time on the aspects of commercialization including the competition between academics resulting in sometimes bitter patent battles on rights regarding various facets of the technology and its applications. In contrast, he also gives plenty of air play to the wealth of technologies born of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic covering how the community was poised to act and the incredible bureaucracy and what strings had to be pulled to get through it (and who had the clout to pull those strings). Also included is a pretty comprehensive description of the requirements and applied innovations to virus detection, vaccination, and treatment. I actually feel much calmer about covid having read the book. Lastly, Isaacson devoted a lot of time and discussion to the question of ethics — a topic I always enjoy. Ethical questions such as safety and unintended consequences, the tradeoff between individual needs and the needs of society, the potential widening of the privilege gap, and the potential impact on human diversity if we allow people free choice on gene selection for offspring. Isaacson inserted a lot of his own ideas into this section and I can’t say I agreed with everything he said, though he did fairly include multiple viewpoints. He appeared to conflate (as people often do) genius with debilitating problems — pointing to Van Gogh (mental illness) and Miles Davis (sickle cell anemia) as examples where a change to their genetic structure might alleviate their suffering but hamper their creative output — a loss to society as a whole. He (again, as most people do) also firmly yoked diversity to physical characteristics instead of a wide range of personality, opinion, intelligences etc. There appears to a strong fear that if left to their own devices, *everyone* would choose to have blonde haired, blue eyed children. Also — nobody *ever* seems to bring up the ethical question of parents making decisions for their as-yet-unborn children! I have more strong opinions on this chapter but I encourage you to read it yourself! I have a few other issues with the book — Isaacson seems to insert himself into the action more often than I thought necessary and spent a little longer than I liked on a somewhat sensationalized version of the patent wars. He also loudly supported our new “cancel culture” with his full chapter treatise on James Watson’s fall from grace due to unpopular racial remarks. I’m a big believer in a free electorate who must be trusted to think for themselves and not in favor of shutting down people who have beliefs different from my own (no matter how distasteful). Controlling people’s freedom of expression is really a bad move for a free society, regardless of how much we each wish we could get the other side to shut up! Still — small annoyances aside — this is a fully engaging book about a fascinating topic told in an accessible manner and covering one of the key turning points of human civilization — so go buy it today and read it!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Nilesh

    The Code Breaker is an incomplete story of science and scientists who are in the throes of creating a fast-unfolding revolution. The book is equivalent of, perhaps, someone writing on Einstein in 1910 - a few years after his first papers on the quanta and special relativity, but way before tens of other more significant discoveries they led to. CRISPR and gene editing are barely getting started. Most of us will spend countless hours in coming years and decades following this science's developmen The Code Breaker is an incomplete story of science and scientists who are in the throes of creating a fast-unfolding revolution. The book is equivalent of, perhaps, someone writing on Einstein in 1910 - a few years after his first papers on the quanta and special relativity, but way before tens of other more significant discoveries they led to. CRISPR and gene editing are barely getting started. Most of us will spend countless hours in coming years and decades following this science's developments. One should expect more books on genetic science than any other subjects singing peans of its impact on our health and life. It is not an exaggeration to suppose that genetic sciences' influence could be more than any other scientific revolutions so far. If the field offers equally exciting and inspirational stories of the professionals involved, like Doudna, Charpentier, and others in the book, it is even better. The Code Breaker will be dated in a matter of months. Better explanations of the technologies involved are emerging every day in popular magazines and newspapers. The technologies themselves are becoming rapidly outdated, with the commentators re-assigning past events' importance for their impact on the future with each discovery. The scientists involved have decades more of careers even if we ignore the ballooning army of newcomers. The heroes and their associations, competitions, inspirations will likely appear utterly different over time. In all, The Code Breaker is a topical, quick read. Those who go through it will learn quite a lot if they pick up the book within weeks of publication. This is despite the book not having the best explanations of CRISPR/gene editing or with its pre-conceived take on various players' contributions. The book's most thought-provoking section is where the author discusses moral and ethical issues with the new science. The author goes through a host of points that are being debated in the scientific community. The book does not attempt any answers, which is fine. The primary purpose is to make the readers think, which it does well through the concise and precise presentation of the issues. For example, this reviewer strongly feels that the industry professionals must narrow down the list to the issues within their domain, where the debates and their resolutions could lead to material or needed change in the methods and bin the rest. One of the concerns is how gene editing thwarts natural evolution. This is a redundant concern: almost every scientific discovery or innovation involves unnatural manipulation of nature. They presuppose that nature can be improved. Many naturalists, romantics, or religion-believers have debated against all types of scientific progress for centuries. Gene editing is undoubtedly going to be their next frontier. However, the answers - to the extent one is not discussing widespread potential damage - are not necessarily for the Code Breakers to debate or provide. The same goes for the briefly explained concerns on inequality and "uniformization". Most scientific innovations do not benefit the entire swathe of humanity equally and simultaneously. The solutions are partly with the authorities to mitigate those inequality generating factors and partly speed up the innovation by making its fruits less expensive and more widely available. Stymieing innovation has rarely been debated as a potential solution to any inequality. The other concern that if allowed, everyone in the world may opt for children with uniform characteristics, hence reducing overall diversity. There is something fundamentally paternalistic and wrong if scientists feel that people should not have a choice. More importantly, the people are so diverse that it is difficult to expect everyone to go for the same option on almost any parameter. Plus, if everyone in the world wants to go for one solution - let's say to opt for removing all diseases - why should a handful of scientists resist that in the name of uniformization? Genetic mutation is fraught with unforeseeable risks. It is a science that requires rule-based development to ensure that society does not end up paying in the form of massive humanitarian tragedies for the overzealous modifications of some mad scientists or bad actors. Scientists need to go through the debate list to ensure they focus on the right problems rather than get muddled on a vast array that takes their attention away from things they should be solving for.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    Winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Jennifer Doudna, along with her team of researchers, is revolutionizing the fields of medicine and genetics. Their contributions will not be fully known or understood for years, possibly decades, but Doudna’s development with collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier of CRISPR, an easy-to-use gene-editing technology, is transforming modern science and medicine. CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and it has a wide r Winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Jennifer Doudna, along with her team of researchers, is revolutionizing the fields of medicine and genetics. Their contributions will not be fully known or understood for years, possibly decades, but Doudna’s development with collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier of CRISPR, an easy-to-use gene-editing technology, is transforming modern science and medicine. CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and it has a wide range of uses --- from helping to cure cancer, sickle cell anemia and male baldness to creating designer babies. While the ability to combat disease is not usually debated, allowing parents to produce “designer children” raises ethical questions for society. Following this life-changing creation, dubbed “the most important biological advance since…the discovery of the structure of DNA,” Doudna, a biochemist and gene scientist, has worked to tackle the moral quandaries associated with the invention, balancing the ability to better fight off new viruses and help prevent depression with allowing parents to choose a child’s gender, intelligence or eye color. While Walter Isaacson touches on these issues in THE CODE BREAKER, the main focus is the actual creation of CRISPR and what it means for the world. Although the subject matter is dense, he masterfully tackles the topics necessary to tell the story of the development of CRISPR and its significance with just the right amount of background and detail, and he does not overwhelm the lay reader with information that is not relevant. As with most discoveries and inventions, the process for creating CRISPR relied on the work of earlier scientists, and a decent portion of the book sets the stage for Doudna and her team’s efforts. There were significant patent battles and debates in the scientific community about exactly who was involved in the CRISPR discovery, and Isaacson spends some time on those issues and even occasionally weighs in with his thoughts on the conflicts. As 2020 opened, over two dozen trials were in the pipeline to test CRISPR’s ability to treat very high cholesterol, male pattern baldness, several types of cancer and more. Almost all of them were shut down due to the coronavirus, and Doudna rapidly assembled a group to create tools to fight the pandemic. Instead of continuing their rivalries, these individuals all worked together to create a reliable and easily usable test. As the year progressed, CRISPR was used to help develop a vaccine that not only will fight COVID-19, but can be reprogrammed to effectively deal with any number of viruses that will arise in the future. Isaacson believes that the world is on the cusp of a life science revolution that will usher in the next great period of innovation. As the technological and digital age ends, defined by the microchip, computer and internet, the inventions in this arena will transform the world in ways that people cannot even begin to imagine and will be at the forefront of fighting future pandemics. For the first time in the history of this planet, a species on earth has developed the ability to alter its own genetic makeup; as a result, biology will be the technology of the future. It is a brave new world. Reviewed by Cindy Burnett

  24. 5 out of 5

    Johnmoxl

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. For context I am a fan of Isaacson, having read his bios of Da Vince, Einstein, and Jobs. That said I was disappointed with this effort for a number of specific reasons. The book’s content was at times technical, but appropriate for the subject. As an ex-scientist in an unrelated field, I looked forward to getting into the nitty gritty of the technology, and came away feeling he could have done a much better job of going more deeply into the biochemistry and bench techniques, but instead he repe For context I am a fan of Isaacson, having read his bios of Da Vince, Einstein, and Jobs. That said I was disappointed with this effort for a number of specific reasons. The book’s content was at times technical, but appropriate for the subject. As an ex-scientist in an unrelated field, I looked forward to getting into the nitty gritty of the technology, and came away feeling he could have done a much better job of going more deeply into the biochemistry and bench techniques, but instead he repeated the same superficial descriptions over and over. No, I am not looking for a textbook on the subject, just more illustrative descriptions. His penchant for redundancy was the first major flaw I noticed about the book. This redundant tendency extended into the ethical discussions, an important and fascinating aspect of the field, but once again he repeated the same issues over and over. The second major flaw was his compulsion to write ad nauseum about the petty rivalries and slights between the competing scientists/labs. At first it added an “inside science” view I appreciated, but after awhile it became another unnecessary distraction that easily took up one quarter of the book and diminished the people involved. At this point the writing style felt more like people magazine, when I would have preferred a bit of Scientific American. Less is more Walter. My 3rd beef was with his treatment of James Watson, particularly around Watson’s controversial views on the role of genetics in assessing the comparative intelligence of different population groups and races. Watson did have a major influence on the main character, Jennifer Doudna, and of course on DNA research in general, but his comments on the genetic basis of intelligence were clearly tangential to this story’s arc. Devoting so much time to Watson’s controversial statements smacked of virtue signaling and could have easily been omitted. My biggest disappointment was Isaacson’s willingness to infect the story with his personal partisan politics when discussing the role of CRISPR in addressing the COVID 19 crisis. He took a backhanded swipe at the Trump administration based on failings that occurred within the CDC and FDA related to deploying tests in a timely manner, two departments that are well known to have moved slowly for decades. No credit or even mention was given to the critical role operation warp drive played in the accelerated funding, development and deployment of vaccines. On the flip side he characterized Dr Fauchi as a “superstar”, giving him undue credit for accelerating test development, and making no mention of Fauchi’s many contradictory statements as the virus progressed. The sad part is that CRISPR actually played a key role in virus detection and vaccine development, and will be far more important in preventing future outbreaks. Why taint such a success story with political bias Walter? So, why this hot mess from a talented biographer? I can only assume there was pressure to get the book out while COVID is still monopolizing the news. Next time do the editing needed to produce a book you can be proud of.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Paddy

    Walter Isaacson’s profile of Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna is more the story of CRISPR and gene editing than just the story of Doudna. The author, one of my favorite biographers, has proven time and time again that he can take complex subjects from wildly different fields and narrate their stories in lucid and simple prose. His biographies of Einstein, Jobs , Da Vinci and now, Doudna, stand out as examples. We are arguably moving beyond information technology and software to biotech as the e Walter Isaacson’s profile of Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna is more the story of CRISPR and gene editing than just the story of Doudna. The author, one of my favorite biographers, has proven time and time again that he can take complex subjects from wildly different fields and narrate their stories in lucid and simple prose. His biographies of Einstein, Jobs , Da Vinci and now, Doudna, stand out as examples. We are arguably moving beyond information technology and software to biotech as the exciting and innovative new frontier. The discovery of CRIPSR, full genome sequencing, and more recently the discovery and widespread use of mRNA vaccines to stop COVID 19 - all in a couple of generations - are remarkable examples of the breakneck pace of scientific progress. CRISPR has been the subject of nasty courtroom battles over patents, a battle that is not yet fully settled. The author explores and describes the highly competitive world of academics in science through character portraits of the important players besides Doudna - the brilliant but secretive Feng Zheng, the showboater Eric Lander, the hippie George Church. The story includes a number of Europeans, the most important ones being the Spaniard Francisco Mohica who was the first to discover the CRISPR sequences, and of course the free spirit Emmanuelle Charpentier who would ultimately share the Nobel with Doudna. The sole Asian of prominence is the wildly ambitious He Junkui who gets ahead of himself and facilities the birth of two genetically engineered babies, earning international opprobrium and an eventual ban for life from doing any work in biotech. A special character who finds mention throughout the book is the irascible and provocative James Watson of the Watson-Crick duo who started it all by discovering the the double helix structure of DNA. The author tries to be kind to him even as Watson continues to pour gasoline on the fire he created with his racist and sexist remarks that he tries to support with genetic references. Watson, now in his nineties, comes across as an eccentric outcast, having completely destroyed his scientific legacy with his offensive statements. The book’s planned release could not have anticipated that Doudna would win the Nobel, as she did in December 2020, just as the first mRNA vaccines earned FDA approval. It comes as a fitting coda to the first chapter in the story of genetic code. The author devotes an entire chapter to the ethical questions around gene editing and ends by leaving us with profound questions on what it means to have the ability to edit the source code of our lives, and indeed the meaning of life. We can only wait to see what Doudna and the emerging generation of biotech entrepreneurs and scientists will come up with. The book provides some hints - among other things, some day soon we will all have the tools for gene editing in our hands. It will be as simple as ordering this book on Amazon. And it will come with the inevitable downsides.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ned Frederick

    Curiosity will save us, if we can keep the lawyers leashed and the politicians hobbled. That’s the main lesson from this thoughtful book. Some serious science here. Dizzying descriptions of the technical aspects of what CRISPR does and may do pop up early and often. As a scientist who trained in the 70’s at a time well before the human genome was mapped and just as Watson & Crick's work was just starting to sink in, I found this book very helpful in updating my fading to scant knowledge of the s Curiosity will save us, if we can keep the lawyers leashed and the politicians hobbled. That’s the main lesson from this thoughtful book. Some serious science here. Dizzying descriptions of the technical aspects of what CRISPR does and may do pop up early and often. As a scientist who trained in the 70’s at a time well before the human genome was mapped and just as Watson & Crick's work was just starting to sink in, I found this book very helpful in updating my fading to scant knowledge of the subject of gene editing, and especially so in its framing of the ethical dilemmas inherent in genetic manipulations. But the book spends too much time, in my opinion, setting up the science leading up to the real story and shorts us a bit on the Jennifer Doudna part of the saga. The biographical thread tracing Nobel laureate, Jennifer Doudna's path, as interesting and impressive as it is, doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Fortunately Isaacson doesn’t load us up with too many anecdotes about the struggles of being a woman trying to break into a male dominated discipline. In fact Doudna seems to have been mentored and encouraged by male scientists every step of the way. More challenging was the discipline she chose. All new and with no path forward to follow, other than her own instincts. Gene editing was a new and complex field when she entered the fray, but her native curiosity and competitive drive proved to be major assets. I was hoping for a deeper dive into what makes Prof. Doudna tick, and some answers as to why her when so many others were tilling the same field. I wanted something more of a character study like Isaacson's book on Steve Jobs. This book is, frankly more a biography of CRISPR than Jennifer Doudna. Still there is a lot to hold the reader's attention. The genealogy of the of the gene editing clan's family tree, for example. Frank descriptions of the back-stabbing bunch of scientists elbowing each other out of the way to jump into the limelight, all the while pretending, with world-class passive aggressive behavior, to be laid back and cooperative. Even that veneer seems to fade once the lawyers get involved. At that point pretty much everyone starts to behave like a bunch of manipulative a-holes in a food fight, although Doudna stays above the fray for the most part. There are also lots of layers to the human side of the story: cultural clashes, good old fashioned greed, head to head competition for CRISPR kudos. At times these world-class scientists behave like a teenage Twitter mob. I wasn’t so enamored of this aspect of Isaacson's treatment, but at the end of the day I found what he was able to reveal about this science and its spin-offs to be well and simply stated... bracing. Before reading this I thought CRISPR was a side-show now I get that it’s the main event. Whatever you might think of this gene editing technology, one thing is for sure...it’s going to change everything.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chaitra

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I loved this book, which is quite surprising, because in certain parts the science is quite dense. It's not even science of the type I understand - I dropped biology in high school and switched over to computers and logic the minute I could. I liked chemistry but I preferred the inorganic type, and this is molecular biology spliced with organic chemistry. It's all highly interesting though, because it makes me hopeful for a horrible future. Some random thoughts. I wondered if I was that into comi I loved this book, which is quite surprising, because in certain parts the science is quite dense. It's not even science of the type I understand - I dropped biology in high school and switched over to computers and logic the minute I could. I liked chemistry but I preferred the inorganic type, and this is molecular biology spliced with organic chemistry. It's all highly interesting though, because it makes me hopeful for a horrible future. Some random thoughts. I wondered if I was that into comic books that my first thought was not bye bye inherited diabetes (as it should have been), but X-Men. I don't mean super strength or speed or whatever. I mean genes that will let my descendants live in an atmosphere that is increasingly saturated with greenhouse gases. If gene editing solves it, I'm all for it - it's not like anyone is getting climate change under control any time soon. And while you're at it, make this same thing happen for the world's trees and corals and animals and fish? If I was confident I wouldn't infect myself with some horrible disease because I did something wrong, I would have bought my Odin kit by now. I'm pleased all of the scientists seem aware of the ethics of their findings. But I also find it weird that they weigh in about writing out bipolar disease, about writing out schizophrenia because we wouldn't have art or contribution to the world anymore. It made me upset - it's not a tortured person's responsibility to contribute to the world. It's the world's responsibility to alleviate their pain if it can. The world fails them repeatedly. So until the world can be fixed, table that discussion, I think. I felt terrible for that kid with the sickle cell anemia who bravely says I don't mind it because it taught me empathy and patience? Kiddo, you shouldn't have to have a horrible disease to learn empathy and patience. Millions have empathy, millions have patience without also having sickle cell anemia. Also, if you weren't already going to be empathetic, the disease wouldn't have helped you. On the whole I liked the pettiness involved between the various teams, because it made for interesting reading. It also wasn't tragic the way Rosalind Franklin turned out to be. But I could have done without James Watson. I know it's not possible to talk about genetics without talking about him, but -- he's quite reprehensible. I also thought Isaacson lost a good opportunity to needle him on the equalizing possibilities of gene editing in his interview. I also really liked the author inserts. I usually don't like this, because it's not giving me a chance to make up my own mind, but he seemed fair. And also, he came across as a geek who was genuinely interested in all of this fresh science, and that made the book that much more enjoyable. I also really liked hearing about his covid vaccine trial description.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Danny Aldham

    I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Code Breaker’ yesterday, a book about Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, gene editing and the life sciences revolution that is happening today. It is a good book, but it could have been a brilliant book. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are two of the most famous scientists in the world right now, and deservedly so. They shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry 2020 and are rock stars. That they are also women leading the science is revolutionary. That aspect I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Code Breaker’ yesterday, a book about Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, gene editing and the life sciences revolution that is happening today. It is a good book, but it could have been a brilliant book. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are two of the most famous scientists in the world right now, and deservedly so. They shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry 2020 and are rock stars. That they are also women leading the science is revolutionary. That aspect is shown, if just. This book is a tour de force and covers a vast swath of science and scientific history. It reaches back to Nobel prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick for their work on DNA, and the reprehensible treatment of Rosalin Franklin by Watson and Crick. And here Isaacson first injects poor writerly judgment by apologizing for the men. The book covers the science well. The processes, the organizations and the mustering of resources, the competition between scientists and their teams. But it is weak on the human side. I don’t know Doudna after reading this book. Her thoughts, feelings, motivations are not shared. Her quirks(and we all have them), her values, her sense of humour. I felt the author liked George Church more and let that feeling show through. Charpentier plays too small a role in the story, and I feel she is an interesting character who could have shone. But Isaacson is poor in presenting people. I previously read Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. I started reading that book in awe of what Jobs did, but thinking he was not a nice person or a good man. I left that book with my impression unchanged. I started reading this book in awe of Doudna, but not knowing much about her personality. I finished the same way. Isaacson would be well served to read some good fiction with an eye to how the author creates closeness, intimacy even, to great characters. He doesn’t get close to Doudna, so the reader can’t, and it hurts the book. But he goes further and injects himself into the story. He shows a predisposition to be the moderator, to try to settle contentious issues. He papers over the genuine conflict between Doudna and Feng Zhang, as between Watson, Crick and Franklin. When both Doudna and Zhang are in attendance at future events, do they speak? Is the relationship strained, awkward even? The author is uncomfortable going there, so he doesn’t. Good writing needs honesty, and I think this author fails on that account. He didn’t want to upset anyone. That gentle vision works in actual life but makes for milquetoast literature. And the book closes by winning a Nobel prize. I expected elation and celebration. Nope. A sad, final missed opportunity. #writingCommunity #amwriting #writerslife #Writers #Authors @goodreads #bookreviews

  29. 4 out of 5

    Hadrian

    "[F]or the development of a method for genome editing." -The Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2020 Last year, over video conference of course, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the Nobel Prize for being the principal discoverers of CRISPR editing, a technique by which the genomes - all genetic material - of living organisms can be modified. Isaacson, the biographer who wrote on da Vinci, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steven Jobs, now writes on Jennifer Doudna. The first chapters cover "[F]or the development of a method for genome editing." -The Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2020 Last year, over video conference of course, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the Nobel Prize for being the principal discoverers of CRISPR editing, a technique by which the genomes - all genetic material - of living organisms can be modified. Isaacson, the biographer who wrote on da Vinci, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steven Jobs, now writes on Jennifer Doudna. The first chapters cover her early life, the reason she got into science (reading The Double Helix), and the early history of genetics research. Of course, modern science is a cooperative venture and while Doudna's life is - with good reason - at the center of the book she is not the only person here. Doudna and Charpentier worked with a bright and driven team at Berkeley, and Isaacson introduces the reader to them too. And to step back further from that, many other scientists can claim to have contributed or made some discovery. There is Francisco Mojica, who identified how CRISPR sequences were captured from bacterial viruses; Virginijus Šikšnys, who filed an earlier patent on gene-editing, and Feng Zhang at MIT, who applies for a patent on gene editing in mammalian cells. The legal matters are still ongoing, and I'm even more confused with these than the biology. Stepping back, Isaacson also introduces other figures in biology and chemistry - Anthony Fauci, the majordomo of American infectious disease policy, makes an appearance, or Eric Lander, at MIT, who has now been tapped to the Office of Science and Technology Policy by the Biden administration. There is James Watson, one of the original discoverers of DNA, who has fallen rather abruptly from grace due to some crude and ignorant statements he made about race, intelligence, and genetic inheritance. And finally, there is He Jiankui, formerly of the Southern University of Science and Technology in China, who claimed he had created the first genetically edited human babies in 2018. He was fired in 2019 and sentenced to three years in prison. He does not really come across as a villain, but someone who seems to have been in way over his head. His case, if it can be expanded into any moral lesson at all, foreshadows the potential and the disasters of genetic engineering, even if we are so many years out from what could be done. Isaacson writes the biography well, capturing the biographical details as well as the process of modern science - the long stretches of work punctuated by the brief moment of inspiration, and the competition, either as friends or as something more intense. I have no idea what CRISPR holds, or what any RNA research may hold, but Isaacson conveys his enthusiasm for the subject well.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

    When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn’t become scientists, she decided she would. Driven by a passion to understand how nature works an When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn’t become scientists, she decided she would. Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book’s author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned ​a curiosity ​of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR. The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? And what about preventing depression? Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids? Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species. Thank you, Goodreads, for the chance to read The Code Breaker Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race! Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.-Steve Jobs Apples “Think Different” ad,1997. When I first saw this title, I thought it was something else. And I must confess I have read nothing like this in a few years. I am trying to remember the last time I did; I think it was about 2 years ago. But either way, it was very intriguing. There is a lot of history for CRISPR in this book. It will be amazing to see the advances that are being made and going to come.. There will always be something more. Happy reading everyone! If scientists don’t play God, who will? -James Watson, to Britain’s Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, May 16, 2000

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