On March 11, 2021, I sat in a shrouded cubicle where a nurse took a needle and pierced my upper arm. It was no ordinary shot. It gave freedom from concern, from restriction, and from a disease that had killed more than died in the war in Viet Nam.
On that day, the “stuff” in that syringe entered my body, and I decided I needed to know what it did.
That “stuff” is the subject of Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. The book describes the technique used in nature to attack viruses and how the body can repair itself.
I read everything by Isaacson. His crisp prose threads complicated stories into the lapel-grabbing narrative.
Isaacson probed the third of what he sees as the essential physical elements in the world. He wrote of Einstein and the discovery of the power held in an atom. In his biography on Steve Jobs, he showed how bits and bytes transform the human experience. (This blog is evidence of this.)
The third is the human genome. It is the fundamental biological particle that determines the uniqueness of each person.
The book starts in a frantic time. In early March 2020, a microscopic spiked ball infected human beings the world over. Business ground to a halt. Businesses moved to homes, and schools shut down. A scientist in Berkley, California, places a zoom call to see what can be done about this invader.
Isaacson turns to that scientist on that zoom call, Jennifer Doudna. Her story tells of the science behind the vaccine that flowed through my body in mid-March day. She is a biologist whose father sparked her love of science with a gift of James Watson’s monumental book The Double Helix. Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, unlocking the treasure trove of possibilities.
Even though a guidance counselor told her “girls don’t do science,” Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuel’s Charpentier went on to discover CRISPR, the technique that allows RNA sequences to “repair” parts of genes. It was something that nature has done in nature since the beginning of time. The Nobel committee awarded the two the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020.
Isaacson is a master at turning the complex and complicated into the understandable. Even though I neglected biology in school, his explanations cut through the fog of technical mystery. The subject became understandable, even for the novice. I found the descriptions intriguing.
I found this book caused me to think about the entire field of genetic and its potential use and misuse. The chapter that debated enhancement vs. treatment with gene splicing was worth the price of the book. I thought deeper about this subject than I had others for many years.
I never read Watson’s The Double Helix but now have it in my “wish list” due to reading this book.
One issue a reader must navigate is the myriad of names associated with Doudna’s background and the subject of genetic research. But, a patient reader can gather the main characters and separate them from the supporting characters.
This book unlocked the significance of the field of genetic shaping, including the COVID-19 vaccine, as it unfolds in the future.
The world is unfolding, and regardless of personal conviction about science, the book is worth the time it takes to read. And it might turn your mind over in the process.