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The Code Breaker

The Code Breaker

Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Book - 2021 | First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition
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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 building blocks 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 codiscovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned their curiosity 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 COVID-19 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 the code of life. Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful book that would be! And what about preventing depression? Hmm...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 Novel 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. -- From dust jacket.
Publisher: New York : Simon & Schuster, [2021]
Edition: First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition
ISBN: 9781982115852
Call Number: BIO 576.5 DOUDNA 2021
Characteristics: xix, 536 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 25 cm


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Jun 07, 2021

Nothing, really. It's a bit flat. Sorry.

Jun 04, 2021

RNA is the focus of this book, which is about both Nobel prize winner Jennifer Doudna and the rapid development of biotechnology to alter genes using CRISPR. It unfolds in three parts with Doudna's RNA research as the common thread: first Doudna's early career as a scientist; then a review of the moral issues surrounding gene editing; and finally the future use of RNA-based technologies to destroy viruses in the body without engaging the immune system. There are excellent descriptions of the current different Covid-19 vaccine types and how they work. Isaacson has a gift for making complex science easy to understand and exciting. He captures the camaraderie and competition between labs and the personalities of the researchers, which lend drama to the story.

May 10, 2021

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was jointly awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their work on the development of CRISPR Cas9, a method for genome editing.

This book tells the story of gene editing and in particular the discovery of a gene editing tool CRISPR Cas9. The book’s main character is Jennifer Doudna.

The author tracks the story of Doudna’s journey working on RNA and her collaborative and competitive work with other scientists, including Charpentier, which eventually lead to CRISPR and various discoveries related to it.

I was a little hesitant to read this book as I thought the subject will be quite narrow and specific, being essentially a biography of a basic scientist. However I truly enjoyed how the author opened my mind to this fascinating field of study which has particularly special applications at the time of COVID.

It is very thought provoking as well. Gene editing has applications to produce therapies for genetic and viral diseases. However, if not guided by the highest level of scientific ethics and regulations it could be maliciously utilized to tailor the production of embryos with particular genetic traits (the author tells a story of one case from China).

Walter Isaason, is also the author of a very interesting book on Leonardo da Vinci.

May 07, 2021

The book starts out strong, presenting Dr. Jennifer Doudna as growing up in Hilo HI and being given the Double Helix book by her dad, that inspired her career path. At some point the author’s admiration for Doudna becomes sycophantic, as he can no longer look at her objectively.

For example, Doudna gets into a patent battle with Dr. Zhang, a rival scientist, and Isaacson advocates her position, basically denigrating Zhang’s accomplishment. He comes close to calling him a cheat and unethical. He also goes along with Doudna’s claim that Zhang’s findings were obvious for her work and therefore not deserving of a patent. But the courts have disagreed and Isaacson much later in the book admits that Zhang’s contribution of applying CRISPR to eukaryotic cells was a major accomplishment.

Then the book’s trajectory gets changed for the last third due to COVID. The author desperately tries to present Doudna as a major figure to find a test and vaccine for COVID, but this just reflects his sycophancy. She participated in developing a test that was used locally and had no discernible input on the vaccine.

Despite having described scores of scientists no mention is made of Dr. Kariko, whose work in RNA was fundamental for the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This is crazy when you consider that the author has included vignettes of dozens of scientists along the way.

Isaacson keeps going back describing a rogue guy who wants to sell CRISPR supplies for DIY hobbyists, yet spends a few sentences on Dr. Liu, whose base replacement technique may well supplant CRISPR.

Here is a good writer who simply got too close to a personality and lost sight of the scope of the science that has been the sum accomplishment of many talented scientists.

Apr 25, 2021

I give the first third of the book four or five stars. It's a fascinating subject and Jennifer Doudna's life and career is interesting and compelling. What I didn't care for was the endless series of short biographies of other scientists who were peripherally involved; I would have much preferred a more targeted account and I ended up skimming over most of the last half of the book. A pity, since Walter Isaacson is a talented writer and I loved his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs, both of which were more in-depth.

Apr 20, 2021

A good story about the collaboration and competition in biotech science. The CRISPR technique enables editing of our DNA. But as the book points out there are relatively few diseases that can be eliminated by changing or removing one specific part of the defective gene. Genetic traits such as height, intelligence, hair & eye color, etc. that people may want to select for their children are not as simple as editing a specific section on one gene in our DNA. But that won't stop people from trying. Isaacson discusses this issue toward the end of the book. Genetic engineering, patents, and profiting from biotech are also issues that society will have to face.

Apr 19, 2021

“At the end of the day, the discoveries are what endure. We are just passing on this planet for a short time. We do our job, and then we leave and others pick up the work.”

Apr 05, 2021

Reviewed in Science News, March 27, 2021, p. 29.

Mar 27, 2021

I am a huge Walter Isaacson fan since I've read his biographies of Steve Jobs and Leonardo daVinci which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was, however, sceptical about his ability to write about a character who was a science expert. Isaacson surprised me. He not only did justice to the subjects of Biotechnology, and Biochemistry but explained the details such that a layperson like me could understand the nuances of RNA and the CRISPR technology. The book was particularly interesting because of the personalities involved like Nobel Prize winners Jennifer Doudna and Emanuelle Charpentier and the rivalry with Feng Zhang. All in all an eminently readable book.

Mar 26, 2021



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