Book review: Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Code Breaker’ looks at how CRISPR may change the world

UC Berkeley Professor Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize for her part in unlocking the secrets of CRISPR.

Walter Isaacson at UC Berkeley while researching his book, 'The Code Breakers."
Walter Isaacson at UC Berkeley while researching his book, ‘The Code Breakers.”

If you have received either the Moderna or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19, you are 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 around the world 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 21st century.

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (2021) 552 pages ★★★★★

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’s 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.

Continue reading the review on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.