‘The Code Breaker’ tells the story of CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna

The Code BreakerWalter IsaacsonSimon & Schuster, $35

With the slightest contact, the fernlike vine generally known as sleeping grass folds over on itself, like a Venus flytrap closing its flaps. “What causes the leaves to shut whenever you contact them?” a younger Jennifer Doudna questioned rising up in Hawaii. Noticing that curiosity, Doudna’s father left James Watson’s guide The Double Helix on her mattress sooner or later. Doudna sped by way of the pages, absorbing how Watson and Francis Crick deciphered the construction of DNA. Immediately, she credit the guide and her insatiable inquisitiveness for driving her to develop into a scientist and for setting the inspiration for her to codiscover, almost 4 many years later, a set of molecular scissors referred to as CRISPR that may edit the genetic blueprint of life. Watson would later name CRISPR “an important discovery since DNA’s construction,” Walter Isaacson writes in The Code Breaker.

The guide, each a biography of Doudna and a deep dive into the ethics of genetic engineering, is written for individuals who could have heard of CRISPR however don’t know a lot in regards to the historical past of its improvement. The guide digs into the fierce patent battles which have ensued between the College of California (Doudna is on the Berkeley campus) and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the place different researchers, most notably Feng Zhang, have been additionally growing the gene-editing software. The tone and magnificence of the guide’s first half mimic The Double Helix, organising the scientific course of as a detective story, one targeted first on understanding how micro organism depend on CRISPR to fend off viral infections after which on how scientists reworked that pure bacterial protection system right into a software that permits people to edit their very own DNA.

Whereas The Code Breaker begins off as a page-turner, the latter half is extra tedious, with tangents that loosely weave collectively the battle over the declare to discovering CRISPR and the moral questions round utilizing it. These questions got here to the fore in 2018, after the beginning of two infants whose genes had been edited whereas nonetheless embryos (SN: 11/27/18). Impressively well timed, Isaacson bounces from considerations over “designer” kids to Doudna’s shared 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry (SN: 10/7/20) to her newest race towards rivals: adapting CRISPR right into a software that may shortly detect the virus that causes COVID-19, or one that would doubtlessly thwart the virus’s an infection of human cells (SN: 8/31/20). Not is the race for patents and prizes, Isaacson writes, however one to save lots of humankind from the coronavirus and presumably different ills.

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