Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Code Breaker by Walter Issacson


A biological revolution is occurring right now, one expected to be as impactful as the digital revolution.  This book tells the story of that revolution and the players in it, especially Jennifer Doudna and her co-workers who discovered the breakthrough that allows CRISPR to exist and gives it the potential to fix defects in cells.

Doudna was determined to be a scientist from her teen years after reading James Watson's account of discovering and mapping human DNA.  After college and her doctorate, she became interested in RNA and with the help of others was able to use it to cut out defective strings in DNA and replace it with the correct sequence.  She and her French partner, another woman named Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize for this discovery and others in the field.

But all is not rosy in the CRISPR world.  Although science has made breakthroughs throughout history due to collaboration and shared research, the awarding or prizes and patents has made the scientific world more capitalistic.  Doudna beat out another team from Boston headed by Zheng Fang, by only a slight margin and tension between the two labs has continued for years.  

There are many benefits to this discovery.  Genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington's disease, which are caused by a single gene defect now have hopes of being cured.  The work can be used to increase plant production and farm productivity, making food security more of a reachable goal.  Cancer is another frontier that could benefit and only yesterday I read about CRISPR making breakthroughs in ALS, a degenerative nerve disease.

There are also ethical problems.  One of the biggest is the decision to either work on genes that exist in a living person, which benefits that individual or using CRISPR to change inheritable DNA, which changes the entire human genome forever more.  Is changing our genome something the human race is prepared to do without knowing all the repercussions it can cause?  This is the field for enhancements such as greater muscle strength, appearance, and perhaps intelligence.  Who would pay for this?  Would it stretch the gap between poor and rich even further as the rich choose to give their children advantages poorer parents could only dream of?  

Walter Issacson has been a journalist for many years, working on magazines such as Time.  In recent years, he has worked on biographies of scientists in breaking news fields such as Steve Jobs and Einstein and those involved in the digital revolution.  He also has written works on Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.  His work is detailed and he explains the science of the CRISPR world in a way that those not in the field can understand readily.  This book is recommended for nonfiction readers.

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