The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

by Walter Isaacson

Hardcover, 2021




Simon & Schuster (2021), Edition: First Edition, 560 pages


The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies. When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. She put it aside, thinking it was one of those detective tales she loved. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn't become scientists, she decided she would. Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book's author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned ​a curiosity ​of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions. The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. The past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet. Now we are entering a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code. Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! And what about preventing depression? Hmmm...Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids? After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rocketjk
Isaacson's latest biography is a long an fascinating account of the development of the science of gene editing, as filtered through the life, experience and accomplishments of Jennifer Doudna, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. Isaacson, a clear and straightforward writer, does an
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excellent job of weaving his narrative between Doudna's life story, the concepts of genetics, the progress of the science as discoveries are made, the many scientists that mentored Doudna and with whom she has collaborated and/or competed.

The story of how, over a period of several decades, Doudna and her colleagues discovered the features of DNA and, especially, RNA that allowed them to understand how these enzymes work, and especially the way that RNA is effective in actually cutting to pieces the DNA of invaders like viruses, is fascinating indeed, and Isaacson tells the story very well. He's adept at providing just enough of the technical description of the processes involved to give a lay reader enough of a general idea of what's going on without getting bogged down in too much detail. I actually experienced an element of "willing suspension of disbelief" during the proceedings that I found wholly appropriate. It was fascinating for me to learn, for example, that the genetic techniques being studied and applied by humans now are essentially the same ones that bacteria have been using to fight off viruses for billions of years.

Isaacson stops about 65% of the way through the book to provide an overview of the ethical questions being wrestled with by the scientific world over the issues that our increasingly effective ability to edit our genetic makeup has brought forward. Do we want "designer humans?" What might the unintended consequences be of altering our genetic makeup? How drastically will the ability to genetically enhance or protect our children exacerbate financial and class inequality, as parents with money begin accessing techniques that poorer parents cannot? On the other hand, shall we stop short of curing genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia, or protecting our children from AIDS by altering their DNA? The line in the sand, if you will, is between the ability to provide genetic treatments to individuals to treat or cure genetic conditions from which they're suffering, versus editing a person's overall genetic makeup in a way that will be passed down to their offspring, and thereby affect the species as a whole.

Isaacson describes the question thusly:

"The primary concern is germline editing, those changes that are done in the DNA of human eggs or sperm or early-stage embryos so that every cell in the resulting children--and also of their descendants--will carry the edited trait. There has already been, and rightly so, general acceptance of what is known as somatic editing, the changes that are made in targeted cells of a living patient and do not affect reproductiive cells. If something goes wrong in one of these therapies, it can be disastrous for the patient but not for the species."

And then, as Isaacson was doing his obviously years-long research for this biography, the Covid pandemic hit. The final section of the book describes the ways in which the academic scientific community quickly swung into action, cooperating in areas that would have been sources of competition previously, to create the new sort of vaccines--utilizing RNA manipulation for the first time in vaccine technology--that we are now using to combat Covid.

Isaacson does not skip over the fact that, when Doudna was a young woman deciding upon a career, the idea that "women can be scientists" was one that met stiff resistance within the world of science and in the culture in general. Her role as a pioneer, not among the very first women scientists, of course, but in the vanguard of the generation that battered down many (certainly not all) of the roadblocks taken for granted by previous generations, is stressed, as is her role as a mentor.

There is a lot more in this rich and fertile book, which is at once a biography of a fascinating woman, a primer for how science and private industry inter-relate in our society, a history of the science of genetics, a look inside the war against Covid, and an outline of the ethical/philosophical questions that we are going to be grappling with over these new capabilities.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
This is probably one of the most important science – or even nonfiction books in toto – that I have ever read.

It’s the biography of Nobel winning scientist Jennifer Doudna, but it’s also the story of CRISPR a revolutionary system that now takes human genome editing out of the realm of
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science fiction and into reality.

Since the beginning of bacterial genomic sequencing decades ago, scientists saw that bacterial DNA has repeating sections. These were a puzzle and were often theorized to be repeats of important genes or merely leftover nonsense sequences to provide spacing between genes.

But the utterly astounding truth was that these repeats were being used by bacteria to remember and destroy viruses that had previously attacked them. Bacteria - single celled organisms without a nucleus - had devised a way of remembering and fending off attackers and created the elegant beginnings of an immune system.

These became known as CRISPR - Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.

This discovery was first used to fend off viruses that attacked valuable bacterial yogurt cultures.

But as research progressed, scientists realized that CRISPR provided a tool that could target specific genes in any species.

Combined with genes that would make the CRISPR tools pass through the human nucleus, human DNA itself could be targeted and changed.

This was demonstrated in somatic cells – cells that circulate and replicate but would not have their changed DNA passed on to offspring of the treated patient. It was a cure for sickle cell anemia – but at a price tag of over a million dollars per patient.

There was, however, a line that researchers didn’t want to cross – making changes in germline cells; changes to these cells in the very early developments of embryos would ensure that the offspring of the patients would also have the changes.

And then, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, crossed that line. He performed in vitro fertilization and then edited the genomes of the embryos. The edited targeted gene, CCR5, codes for a protein that HIV uses to enter cells. The resulting twin girls would no longer succumb to the virus that causes AIDS. It was done imperfectly; one twin only had the genetic change on one of her two chromosomes. Both girls’ bodies had a mosaic of immune and non-immune cells suggesting it was done at a slightly too late stage of embryonic development.

But the genie was out of the bottle – it had been demonstrated that the human genome was able to be freed of disease causing genes and enhanced with genes that humans see as more desirable.

All of this invokes a huge number of moral and ethical questions. Gene editing has passed from the age of science fiction and into reality. There is now a way to make targeted changes to rewrite the human genome. It’s no longer ‘Could we?’ but ‘should we?’ and even “How can we possibly prevent the next steps”? It may not even be possible to regulate this new form of genetic engineering which could create a form of ‘genetic engineering tourism’ as cash rich patients seek relatively simple procedures in cash strapped countries.

Unfortunately, it also opened the door to a set of CRISPR biological weapons which would literally edit human DNA – followed closely by an industry of anti-CRSPR counter weapons to offset such attacks.

Then came the Corona Virus – an RNA virus that was sweeping through humanity. A large consortium of scientists working on various aspects of CRISPR throughout many nations, gathered together via remote technology to brainstorm how CRISPR could effectively help. CRISPR knowledge had given them many new tools to understand and work with viral mRNA.

Their first focus was using CRISPR tools for testing for the Covid-19 gene presence in human samples.

A second question became using the RNA tools to deliver the critical portion of the virus’s protein to the nuclei of patients’ cells. As viral RNA does, this portion of the viral mRNA would temporarily take over the hosts’s DNA to produce the spike protein – and alert the host’s cells that an intruder needed to be eliminated. Enter the highly successful mRNA vaccines.

Ongoing CRISPR investigations may produce more therapeutics to fight the virus in patients.

And of course, there’s the question of whether the human genome could (or even should) be rewritten to block Covid and other Corona viruses from entering the cell at all.

Read this book. The door of the future has been opened and this is the sweeping technology that will be there.

If you have a background in science or genetics, the first section of this 500 page book will read like a detective novel. If you have less background and find this first section overwhelming, skim through or skip it and go onwards. You’ll be glad you did.
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LibraryThing member Jim53
A delightful introduction to the development and future of genetic engineering. I enjoyed reading about science as detective work, competition and cooperation among scientists and universities, and the ethical decisions we must make about deploying this advancement. Isaacson gets into the science
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but keeps it intelligible and readable, with lots of focus on the individuals who contributed. Highly recommended for anyone with any inclination to understand more about how life works, and some time to devote to it.
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LibraryThing member kheders
Absolutely fascinating non-fiction about the efforts made by scientists to unravel RNA. Insight into the academic life, need to publish first, how labs get funded and staff move around to other labs. Crisper technology discussed and its implications.
LibraryThing member bell7
When Jennifer Doudna was a girl, she received a copy of The Double Helix by James Watson. She read with fascination, and discovered that woman can be scientists - and then this warm but competitive woman went on to study RNA and run a lab that was responsible for breakthroughs in CRISPR and gene
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editing technology.

Walter Isaacson, whose name may be familiar from his best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, turns his attention to biotechnology in The Code Breaker. Doudna is the main character threaded throughout, but many other scientists, both collaborators and competitors, are introduced as Isaacson painstakingly traces the history of CRISPR research and ethics, and finally turns his attention to its impact in coronavirus testing and vaccines just this past year. He draws on many interviews and interestingly inserts himself in the story, sometimes telling the reader where he comes down on a particular ethical issue, or describing his own involvement in a conference or vaccine trial. It gets pretty technical and left my head spinning at times, despite the fact that I've taken a college-level genetics course (though that was over a decade ago, before this technology was viable). But it's a fascinating account, and one I'd recommend to anyone interested in genetics or women in science.
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LibraryThing member wdwilson3
This is an extremely difficult book to review for me. I really loved parts of it, and was totally bored by others. Bear in mind that I listened to this book, not read it, so the boring parts couldn't be skimmed.

Walter Isaacson usually writes biographies. This isn't one. At least, it isn't one of
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Jennifer Doudna, in the usual sense, though she is one of the central characters. It would be more accurate to say that this was the biography of CRISPR, the gene-editing tool that many researchers developed, in the investigative and very competitive process that is described here.

I loved learning about the epochal battle between bacteria and virus that led to CRISPR and it's adaptation by skilled researchers. I was fascinated by the background of the vaccines for COVID-19 and the companies that developed them.

I enjoyed the human aspect of Doudna's background and her personal connections with Emmanuelle Charpentier and the other scientists that led to the ability to manipulate genetic codes. Isaacson gives credit to many scientists in the course of the book, and many of their stories are arresting.

I didn't enjoy the parts of the book that focused on the completion to publish first and patent first, or the private companies that were set up to monetize the research.

All in all, I learned things, and while wading through boring chapters wasn't fun, the book is worth your time – the print version, which you can skim.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
Excellent narrator.

Wow, I didn't like this book nearly as much as others, apparently. Or maybe it's just I don't like how human pettiness and emotions ruin everything. The book was a lot of relationship description and that could have been shorter in my one-persons opinion. I just don't care to
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know about their human squabbles and this book had too much of it. The science part, even the squabbles and lawsuits over the codes/dna/really etc... was interesting and easy to understand for a lay person like me. But it seemed to take on too much, veered into different science topics and I actually couldn't finish the book because the last chapter(s) seemed to go off into yet another science area.

So... I guess, recommend for those that like a lot of personal drama with their discoveries? Just not me
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Although I mostly read fiction, I have been aware of Walter Isaacson and his portrayals of people like Einstein, and Steve Jobs among others. A friend in a book club is reading this so I thought I would give it a try. It is almost 500 pages and in parts very technical but ultimately the big picture
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of the book is an excellent portrayal of the people involved with the development of the gene editing tool CRISPR. This tool has opened up the world of gene editing and with the positive and negative as to how this tool can be used. It focuses around Jennifer Doudna but it brings many people involved in biotech and with the history of discoveries in DNA etc. Isaacson humanizes the characters is this drama. It does get technical but for me it give me an overview that I didn't have. Also the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines owe their breakthrough vaccine process to developments in gene editing. The books deals with ethical issues that we face as we begin to use gene editing as we try to eliminate diseases such as Huntingtons and Sickle Cell anemia. However was also have to deal with issue of enhancements and how that can effect natural selection as we move forward. As we have seen with all great inventions such as the computer, internet, etc. there is always the probability of bad actors entering into the field. Ultimately, the book does a great job of bringing up the big issues facing us as we become more proficient in being able to eliminate and enhance the human genes. Will it always be positive?
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LibraryThing member Katyefk
What an amazing story. Isaacson is such a great writer/storyteller, he keeps the mystery alive and I wanted to keep on reading no matter what to find out what was going to happen next.
I am a business person, not a scientist, and this was so interesting and current with our times that I feel I now
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have a good working understanding of this CRISPER technology. This is truly a Nobel prize worthy discovery. It will be very interesting to see how the ethics of it all plays out in the years to come.
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LibraryThing member capewood
2021 book #57. 2021. How Jennifer Doudna won a Nobel Prize for inventing CRISPR, a technique for editing human genes. Quite an interesting story. Just in time these techniques were helpful in developing new tests and vaccines for COVID.
LibraryThing member chasidar
This book was fascinating. And listening to it during the second year of the Covid pandemic reinforced how science builds on generations of previous knowledge and how the greatest scientific minds rallied to find solutions for the pandemic.
LibraryThing member kevn57
In 2012 Jennifer Doudna invented a way to edit DNA. Nobody knew then that 8 years later the world would be in a pandemic. Vaxers or Anti-Vaxers should at least know a little about the science of viruses and DNA, this well written and informative book can do that for you.
It's also an interesting
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look at how science is done today in the United States.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
This is a well researched study about the cutthroat race to be first to discover new valuable information in the biosciences. There are principly two rival teams, one led by Jennifer Doudna based in Brekeley and the other based in Boston led by Feng Zhang. There are many other important plarers
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that Isaacson give fair credit to and tells their story. It is ironic that Covid and the quest for answers is reducing the anomosity and leading scientists to cooperate to find cures and better tests to relieve human suffering.
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LibraryThing member Familyhistorian
I was a bit daunted by the size of the book when I picked up "The Code Breaker" at my local library. I knew I had to start reading it right away when I checked my library site to find out there were many more holds waiting. That said, the short chapters and style of writing helped to speed the
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pages along.

The author told the story of the scientific discoveries relating to gene editing through the personalities involved. That led an interesting tale of rivalries and the monetization of scientific discoveries. In some cases, it read almost like a thriller. It was also a wonderful build up to show the contrast with the sharing philosophy scientists and governments adopted when there was a common emergency due to the Covid pandemic.
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LibraryThing member Vulco1
I definitely did not enjoy this. I think it hit a weird area of the venn diagram of everything/everyone that it could have been about that I didn't like.

It wasn't science-y enough for me. When I read books about science, I want to feel like I can do whatever the subject is (even though I know I
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can't) because I know enough about the processes. This book didn't go into enough of that detail.

It wasn't enough about Doudna's life. I would have enjoyed a more personal book about her life (especially since she is still with us) than about her career.

A full timeline of everything and everyone involved would have been nice if it took place in chronological order, so we could see the coincidental comings together of ideas.

There's other stuff like this, but overall, I found the book to be a slog. But it probably did what it set out to do adequately.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Well written, as usual by Isaacson. Got lost in the weeds a bit with the scientific jargon, but the competition among the scientists and the ethical considerations were very interesting. The Nobel was a great ending.
LibraryThing member terran
I was so impressed with this book. It delivers exactly what the subtitle says it will. It doesn't say it is a comprehensive biography about Jennifer Doudna, but there is a great deal of biographical information presented. The information on gene editing is described primarily with regard to
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Doudna's role in its development, in a way that is accessible to non-scientists like myself. The ethical implications of the use of this method of changing human DNA and the necessity to develop safe policies for the use of CRISPR technology is extremely important to the future of the human race.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
I am a Walter Isaacson fan; this is the fourth book by him that I've read. As always, I found that he writes in an engaging and accessible style.

While the other three titles I've read have been biographies of long-deceased people, this one was only partly a biography. It was also about how science
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happens, a history of genetics, the war against COVID, and a discussion of bio-ethics. The author wrote, in the Acknowledgements section, that he wanted this book to be a voyage of discovery. By inserting himself and his thoughts into the book, he made it such a journey for him, and for me.

To me, the most interesting parts of the book dealt with the moral issues. I was also interested in the unexpected consequences of the COVID pandemic in that it created an environment for great collaboration among universities and other researchers.

As I finished the book, I couldn't help but speculate that, not that long ago, the entire text would have been the basis for a sci-fi novel.
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LibraryThing member nmele
I expected this book to be a massive biography, as so many of Isaacson's books have been, but I was wrong. Yes, he does focus on Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna's life but much of the book explains the latest developments in gene editing for laypeople and the processes by which genetic scientists
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work in collaboration. The book therefore includes biographies of Doudna's co-Nobel winner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and other prominent genetic scientists. It also faces the ethical and moral questions raised by our ability edit human genes and taught me much about the controversy of a few years ago when a Chinese scientist announced the birth of twins who are the first human babies whose DNA has been edited. Quite a book!
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LibraryThing member ibkennedy
Fascinating. Humbling. Enjoyed it.
LibraryThing member japaul22
[Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race] by [[Walter Isaacson]]

This book seemed obviously rushed to press. Isaacson took a fascinating subject, the science behind gene editing using discoveries made while studying RNA, and makes the science secondary to a
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juvenile telling of the in-fighting between the scientists as they raced to publish their findings first. The human story becomes a string of short bios and the language was so simplistic that I checked several times to see if I'd mistakenly downloaded the youth version on my kindle.

This is too bad, because it's a fascinating topic, and Isaacson certainly could have included a focus on the scientists in addition to describing the science, but it just wasn't executed well. I would have been thrilled to read a good biography of a woman scientist, but even Jennifer Doudna, who gets a nod in the title, doesn't get a deep enough attention in the book to satisfy my curiosity.

I was hoping for a science book in the vein of [The Gene] by [[Siddhartha Mukherjee]] and this comes no where close. I felt this was rushed to publish because the science was used in creating the mRNA covid vaccines.

The book gets a lot of high ratings on LT and elsewhere, but I didn't see it.

Original publication date: 2021
Author’s nationality: American
Original language: English
Length: 552 pages
Rating: 2 stars
Format/where I acquired the book: library kindle book
Why I read this: interested in the topic
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