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A Crack in Creation

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution

Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2017
301 pp.
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Biochemist Jennifer Doudna didn’t set out to make waves when she delved into research on an obscure bacterial immune system in 2007. But then again, she didn’t know that she’d soon be working on a tool with the ability to alter life as we know it. The ripple she ultimately made in the research community was no ordinary wave. Instead, it was a tsunami.

A Crack in Creation, coauthored by Doudna and her former student, Samuel Sternberg, chronicles the origin and potential applications of CRISPR, the powerful new gene-editing technique that established Doudna as a household name in scientific circles. They lay out the story in two parts—“The Tool” and “The Task”—and tell the tale in the first person from Doudna’s perspective.

The first section begins with a history of gene-editing technology and how these research endeavors were largely propelled by the quest to eradicate genetic diseases. Although refining finicky techniques held promising potential for human health, it wasn’t a line of inquiry that Doudna and her group pursued until a chance encounter with a colleague introduced her to CRISPR.

Although this section of the book could be perceived as tedious for anyone with a working knowledge of genetics or molecular biology, bear with the refresher course. Reviewing the fundamentals will enable your imagination to unspool. You’ll find yourself pausing to plot your own CRISPR-inspired science project—or science fiction scenario.

In the second half of the book, the authors outline the staggering potential applications of CRISPR technology. These are at times benevolent, imbued with promises of curing genetic diseases or engineering new supercrops to feed a growing population. But they also veer toward the horrifying, evoking fears of unregulated testing on human embryos, eugenics, and the creation of novel biological weapons.

It’s the narrative between the lines that propels the book forward, however. Lurking within Doudna’s discussion of when studies were published and presentations given is the knowledge that many of the researchers mentioned are now embroiled in a legal battle over a nascent industry that’s valued in the billions. When the authors recount the Obama Administration’s 2015 pronouncement against editing the human germ line for clinical purposes in another section, it’s hard not to envision what the future might hold for CRISPR in the new political climate.

Doudna and Sternberg predict that within a generation there will be little left untouched by CRISPR. As such, it’s impossible not to wonder if the motivation behind the book is to stake Doudna’s claims on the technology or if, perhaps, it is meant to serve as a preemptive mea culpa for unleashing a technology that will irrevocably alter life on Earth.

At the end of the prologue, Doudna invites readers to join the discussion about gene editing—to ride out the proverbial tsunami alongside her. However, the wave is coming whether you’re prepared to paddle or not.

About the author

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, NY 10964, USA