Book Review: ‘The Code Breaker’ | Community
“The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race” by Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021. 533 pages. $ 35 (Hardcover).
With the famous biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs to his credit, Walter Isaacson has become to intellectual biography what Doris Kearns Goodwin is to popular history. He needed all this baggage and more to write what will probably be his most important book: a very readable account of how CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene editing came into being and colossal problems it poses for the future.
The CRISPR system is a method that bacteria have evolved over billions of years to defend themselves against killer viruses. Long story short, they found a way to cut pieces of genetic material from an invading virus and train their defenses to spot and destroy the parent virus. Moreover, using the same mechanisms, they can plug pieces of the invader’s DNA into their own genes so that they “remember” the virus in case it attacks them again and also pass this memory on and the immunity it confers on their descendants.
This strange wrinkle in natural history (discovered while researching ways to protect bacteria in yogurt and cheese) would mean very little to the rest of us, except that the CRISPR system isn’t limited to bacteria. It can be made to work with any being that contains DNA. With the right methods, you can get CRISPR to cut pieces of genetic code from one source and insert them into the genes of a target organism – any target organism. Now that biochemists can create design genes and scan many genetic codes – including our own – CRISPR offers a wide range of often disturbing new capabilities.
The simplest and least controversial uses of the system are therapeutic. Experts can already fix the cell malformation that leads to sickle cell anemia and may soon have genetic tools to treat things like cancer, high cholesterol, Alzheimer’s disease, and even male pattern baldness. These therapies are one-off injections. They change individuals, but are not inheritable.
Our remarkable COVID vaccines are another example. Instead of doing them the traditional way, biochemists were able to instruct the CRISPR system to cut harmless pieces of the coronavirus, multiply them on an industrial scale, and inject them into our arms, giving us the same kind of immunity as many bacteria.
What are called germline changes, i.e. genetic alterations in sperm or ova or early stage embryos, is much more questionable. Germline? It means transmissible. The changes at this stage become a permanent part of the subject’s genetic heritage. Germline alterations could rule out sickle cell anemia or any other genetic disease – Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, Tay-Sachs disease and a host of others – from its descendants and possibly the entire human race. A rogue researcher in China has already designed a set of CRISPR twins who are immune to AIDS … and able with the right partners to transmit that immunity.
So far, so good. But what about using CRISPR on early stage embryos to encode green eyes, straight teeth, height, athleticism, intelligence? It is only a matter of time before some of these effects become possible. Then what ? Isaacson and his sources make some useful distinctions – for example, between remedies for undeniable ailments (avoiding hemophilia, for example) and simply optional improvements (more fast-twitch muscles); or between changes that benefit everyone (elimination of cystic fibrosis) and those that help a person and their offspring (higher IQ). If we allow optional improvements, who can afford them? Without clear guidelines, we could end up like the hereditary alphas and drones of Huxley’s Brave New World.
These groundbreaking developments and the thorny issues that accompany them could make reading dry, but Isaacson anchors them in capsule biographies of the main players in this game of knowing who owns the future. From its main figure, Jennifer Doudna, to minor figures like obscure yogurt researchers, the story is full of revealing details and human interests embedded in the overall tale of the birth of all this new science. And what a story, as characters from all over the world rush to contribute to a cascade of discoveries: compete to be the first to understand, recruit teams, be funded, patent procedures, be published! There are enough cliffs and twists and turns along the way to satisfy Stephen King.
But as entertaining as it is, “The Code Breaker” is much more. The chapters are short, but each gives food for thought. Isaacson explains the central role of basic research in scientific progress: How science paradoxically thrives on competition and collaboration at the same time. How university-government-business partnerships have fueled technological breakthroughs since World War II. How the patent system works to promote or sometimes hinder discoveries. How the current financial interests of universities have weakened cooperation among scientists. And, on every other page, how international scientific work has become. Not only was CRISPR research in the United States heavily reliant on naturalized and first-generation immigrants, a random peek at the book’s index reveals names like Savlescu, Shihasaburo, Šikšnys, and Szostak. Doudna’s most influential partner was Emanuelle Charpentier, a Frenchwoman working mainly in northern Sweden.
Doudna became interested in science while in sixth grade in Hawaii, reading “The Double Helix”, James Watson’s account of how he and Francis Crick first discovered the structure. DNA. Anyone curious about cutting-edge bioengineering or the inner workings of high-level science should read “The Code Breaker,” but the book’s long-term significance may inspire young people to take the same path Doudna chose. – the path that will lead to even more unimaginable breakthroughs in the future.
– Reviewed by Joe Glaser, Department of English, Western Kentucky University.