Book review: “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race” by Walter Isaacson

Scientists analyzing DNA helix and editing genome within organisms, CRISPR technology.

Long gone are the days when genetically engineered humans solely existed in science fiction. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus,” H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” all posited ideas of human-like scientific experiments and how humanity might progress given the power of genetic engineering. Over the past few decades, those ideas from fiction have gradually become more real. Like a story unfolding, American biochemist Jennifer Doudna, a hero behind the Crispr-cas9 technique, takes center stage. 

In “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race,” the famous historian Walter Isaacson follows the steps of Doudna on her journey to uncover the secrets of the genetic code and the moral questions resulting from tampering with human life. 

After Isaacson has established himself thoroughly as a historian and journalist with his biographies on Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and other men, he now shares the story of Doudna, one of the women behind the pioneering work in the field of gene editing. 

Her technique relies on Crispr, an acronym for the “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats,” found in the bacteria in everyone’s DNA, that lets scientists edit parts of the genome with precision and versatility. With the associated protein Cas9, an enzyme that uses Crispr sequences to select and remove specific parts of the DNA, Doudna’s Crispr-cas9 technique would prove its usefulness in letting scientists edit genomes in vivo, or right in place in a living organism. 

Put in the hands of amazing scientists, Doudna and her team at Berkeley hope to use Crispr-cas9 to “engineer inheritable edits in humans that will make our descendants less vulnerable to virus infections.” Such a powerful technology could change the human race as we know it. 

Coming at no time more opportune than the pandemic, the creation of effective vaccines for the COVID-19 has brought the need for Crispr-cas9. And, when Doudna earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry last year alongside French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, the story ends with events unfolding in the news today. When you close the cover of the book at the end, the next chapter continues before your eyes. 

Isaacson’s biography wasn’t just history: it was reality. Reading the book feels like watching a movie with everything we’ve witnessed in Crispr-Cas9 research leading up to these momentous events we’ve read about in the news only recently. 

In 2012, the two women, Charpentier and Doudna, published their manuscript on the first use of the technique, using Crispr RNAs to provide adaptive immunity to bacteria and archaea. Eight years later, they won the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking work. Their story involves a race between scientists competing against one another for publications and patents while questions of how the technology will shape the future take the stage. 

The power of genetic engineering has raised questions of how scientists should use it for decades. American biochemists Stanley N. Cohen and Herbert W. Boyer pioneered recombinant DNA technology, letting scientists cut DNA into fragments and rejoin them to create and insert new sequences at their will in the early 1970s. When 150 physicians and biologists gathered at the Asilomar conference in 1975 to debate what sort of restraints should be placed on these new genetic engineering technologies, Stanford biochemist Paul Berg set the stage by describing the science behind it: recombinant DNA technology, formed from different organisms, has made it “ridiculously simple” to create new genes. Berg claimed that, given its risks were so difficult to determine, the technology should be banned. Others dissented, including MIT biologist David Baltimore, who argued for a solution that would restrict the use of recombinant DNA to “crippled” viruses so they wouldn’t spread. 

Using Crispr-Cas9 to get rid of sickle cell anemia, cancer, Huntington’s disease, or COVID-19 may sound amazing already, but, given the power to change the genome, why not use it to change other things about who we are? With the technology to change our height or make us smarter, the questions of what right we have to do so arise. Isaacson goes into the deep moral questions that the technique poses. Why not engineer a child to be the perfect athlete, the perfect student, or the perfect scientist? 

The innovative success in pushing the boundaries of how closely and thoroughly Crispr scientists can change the genome has also raised questions of how much one should tamper with what makes us human. Isaacson doesn’t stop at the science, though. His writing on the theories of justice by philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozicke that relate to the ethics of Crispr would help readers understand methods of philosophical reasoning that can be used to define and provide a framework for hot topic issues such as eugenics and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. 

Even the issues of how unequal access to the technology could consolidate disadvantaged and marginalized subjects and groups, the way human life is treated through motives and methods of reasoning, such as the justification of giving priority to patients who need an organ immediately to prevent death, even if there is a utilitarian motive for giving the organ to a healthier patient, all depend upon the essential questions of human life that Crispr raises. 

It’s difficult to downplay the sexism Doudna faces on her journey to own her own research. Isaacson’s story brings light to these subtle ways men overshadow and overlook the work of women in science with notable similarities to the treatment of Rosalind Franklin. When Eric Lander, biologist at MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute, published his essay “The Heroes of CRISPR,” in the journal Cell in January 2016, he concluded that, “the narrative underscores that scientific breakthroughs are rarely eureka moments. They are typically ensemble acts, played out over a decade or more, in which the cast becomes part of something greater than what any one of them could do alone. It’s a wonderful lesson for the general public, as well as for a young person contemplating a life in science.” Though it may seem noble to praise the scientists behind Crispr this way, what wasn’t said revealed the misogynistic undertones. 

In her Jezebel article “How One Man Tried to Write Women Out of Crispr, the Biggest Biotech Innovation in Decades” writer Joanna Rothkopf pointed out that Lander failed to mention the billion-dollar patent battle between his institute and Doudna and Charpentier. “Not only did the Cell paper fail to disclose the potential conflict of interest, it significantly minimized the role of Doudna’s lab in advancing the technology,” Rothkopf wrote. Such a manipulative method of subtly ignoring the work of women spoke to larger systemic issues of sexism in science. Similarly, the patent battle only epitomized the greater, more universal competition that pitted scientists against one another throughout Isaacson’s book.

And what a war it was. Isaacson emphasizes the nature of scientific research as competition with individuals racing to discover the blueprints of the genetic code. Through bitter rivalries and battles, each combatant with their own motives and research techniques, the book feels like a series of duels between scientists in a culture that rewards national competitiveness and firsts. The reader is left to wonder whether the fault for misconduct and discrimination lies with the decisions the individual makes or with the culture that glorifies provocative research and celebrity status. 

Like a mystery story unraveling, Doudna’s journey is all about finding the clue that leads to the next step, one by one, with each step getting closer to fighting against disease. One finds a noble cause among Crispr scientists searching for truth and answers for the greater good, showing the worth of their character. Echoing what Lander wrote, the young person contemplating a “life in science” should understand how grand narratives emerge out of ensemble acts that play out over decades. Indeed, one should hope that life in science would be determined by the actions of the scientist herself, not by her DNA.