Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

I am not sure when Walter Isaacson started researching “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race” but it takes a lot of research to fill a 500 page book. Jennifer Doudna (and Emmanuelle Charpentier) received the Nobel Prize for developing a genome editing tool called CRISPR.

Isaacson did a lot of research. He spoke to most of Doudna’s colleagues, her competitors and some detractors as well. “The Code Breaker” is thorough, covering chemistry, scientists, patents, biotechnology, biohackers, genetic editing and ethics among other topics. Isaacson took the time to understand the science behind CRISPR well enough to explain it to the general reader.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It has to do with DNA. This phrase will be like RADAR, an acronym where most people understand what it means without remembering exactly what it stands for.

It started with the discovery that single cell bacteria had developed a way to protect themselves from viruses. Bacteria can alter the DNA in viruses, leaving a virus unable to infect the bacteria. Learning how bacteria can fight off viruses helped researchers in Doudna’s lab develop a gene editing tool called CRISPR. “Just as bacteria have spent millennia evolving ways to develop immunity to viruses, perhaps we humans should use our ingenuity to do the same.”

With the human genome mostly decoded by 2003, genes for specific diseases could be isolated. CRISPR has been used to “correct” DNA for debilitating diseases like sickle cell disease. Researchers are currently developing ways to use CRISPR to cure many other diseases.  “The evolutionary process cares little about what happens to us after we have children and get them to a safe age, so there are a whole bunch of middle-aged maladies, including Huntington’s and most forms of cancer, that we humans would want to eliminate, even though nature sees no need to.”

CRISPR was waiting for a chance to shine when a novel coronavirus hit the scene. It was immediately obvious that this technology could be put to use to develop a vaccine for Covid-19.

I enjoy reading science-y books. There is a lot of complicated science involved with the development of CRISPR. Isaacson goes to great lengths to break down each concept into understandable language. He starts at the beginning and each idea builds on the one before. I understood each concept long enough to see how it supported the next concept. I don’t remember a lot of the science now- it’s been nearly a month since I read the book. I understood it while I was reading it and that is what was necessary.

One thing Isaacson stresses throughout the book is how science builds on itself. A discovery by one person makes a discovery by another person possible. While Doudna and Charpentier won the Nobel, their work was made possible by many other scientists. 

You can find “The Code Breaker” by Walter Isaacson at the Gering Library. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding how the Covid vaccines were rapidly developed using science discovered in 2011. CRISPR is what the future of medicine will look like. It’s a big book, but it’s a big subject. If you enjoy “The Code Breaker,” Isaacson has written biographies of several people, including Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo daVinci, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. He followed up his biography of Jobs with a book on the digital revolution. All of these books are available at the Gering Library.

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