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A new biography traces CRISPR’s origins and embraces scientist-led oversight of its future

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

Walter Isaacson
Simon and Schuster
2021
560 pp.
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In The Code Breaker, distinguished historian and biographer Walter Isaacson tells the life story of biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who played a major role in discovering the inner workings of the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. Doudna’s story is compelling and intersects with others, including French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier, with whom Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and notable figures in contemporary biology, including Eric Lander, George Church, and Feng Zhang.

Writing gracefully and with authority, Isaacson frames Doudna’s life story with that of James Watson, who used model-building and photographs to propose the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953. Doudna, who received a copy of Watson’s book The Double Helix from her father when she was in the sixth grade, recalls reading Watson’s account of how he and other male scientists exploited and then minimized the contributions of their colleague Rosalind Franklin, but that was not the part that caught her attention. Doudna explains: “what mainly struck me was that a woman could be a great scientist.”

With the help of a family friend who was a biologist, Doudna ignored her high school guidance counselor’s discouragement (“Girls don’t do science”) and studied chemistry and biochemistry at Pomona College in Claremont, California. She completed her graduate work at Harvard, where she became an expert at deciphering RNA. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Colorado, she accepted a tenure track position at Yale. In 2002, she and her husband, Jamie Cate, moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where, 4 years later, she would be introduced to CRISPR by microbiologist Jillian Banfield.

Doudna joined the giant biotech company Genentech in January 2009. She regretted the decision almost immediately. “It was a visceral response,” she confides. “Every day and night, I felt I had made the wrong decision.” She gratefully returned to Berkeley 2 months later, where she formed her own company, Caribou Biosciences—“a cut-and-splice mashup of ‘Cas’ and ‘ribonucleotides’”—with Rachel Haurwitz in 2011. “At that time, the topic of molecular diagnostics was a turnoff to venture capitalists,” Doudna tells Isaac­son. “I also feel that there is an anti-female undercurrent, and I was worried that if we took venture money, that Rachel might be pushed out as CEO.” The pair decided to raise the money they would need themselves.

Doudna met Emmanuelle Charpentier for the first time at the 2011 conference of the American Society for Microbiology, where Charpentier suggested they work together to “figure out exactly how [CRISPR-Cas9] works.” Fourteen months later, their groundbreaking work describing the essential components and biochemical mechanisms of CRISPR was published in Science (1). Isaacson describes a celebratory dinner on the day that the final revisions were submitted: “They ordered champagne and toasted what they knew would be a new era in biology.”

Although dependable gene editing has almost limitless applications, Isaacson gives over most of the second half of the book to just one: the editing of human embryos. Here, he traces Doudna’s evolving position on the matter, from an initial abhorrence to gradual acceptance as she comes to categorize it—wrongly, I think—as simply another in a long series of new reproductive technologies.

Science is necessary but it is not sufficient for decision-making in this realm. Isaacson concedes that society will need “not only scientists, but humanists” to guide us through the gene editing juncture, but this statement, which appears on the final page of the book’s epilogue, feels almost like an afterthought.

In his enthusiastic embrace of science—communicated dramatically by the inclusion of two photos of the author in a white lab coat—Isaacson portrays himself as a member of the scientific tribe and no longer as an impartial observer. (Another story told by the book’s striking photographs is the movement toward gender equality in science, but—unintentionally, I’m sure—also the persistence of structural racism. Very few people of color appear in these images. But this is a larger issue for another day.)

Although I do not endorse the book’s science-centric view of human values, I highly recommend The Code Breaker to anyone interested in an insider’s view of the politics of high-stakes academic research. We must understand the history of CRISPR before we write, edit, or regulate its future, and books that place the technology in broader context are vital to this pursuit.

References and Notes
1. M. Jinek et al., Science 337, 816 (2012).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for Health Law, Ethics, and Human Rights, Boston University School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA.