Curiosity drives science, and Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, has a driving curiosity to understand the natural world. In The Code Breaker, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, Walter Isaacson recounts how curiosity drove her life’s work and those of her collaborators and competitors in the basic research of life itself.
Isaacson is a journalist, a Tulane University history professor, and an accomplished biographer of Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs. His treatment of Jennifer Doudna is both a sympathetic biography and a compelling detective story, and Isaacson is a master storyteller.
Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii and became interested in the lush natural life of the Hawaiian landscape at an early age. Her inspiration to become a scientist came with a pre-teen reading of The Double Helix, James Watson’s explanation of the structure of DNA (i.e., deoxyribonucleic acid). But despite parental encouragement, she believed what many little girls were told in those days—women don’t become scientists. It took a high school French teacher to advise Doudna to give up her beloved French studies, outstanding though they were, and choose science.
And that advice had far-reaching consequences. Doudna graduated from Pomona College with a BA in biochemistry in 1985 and received a PhD in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology from Harvard Medical School in 1989. Always fascinated with the structure and chemistry of the natural world, and with her doctoral advisor’s urging, Doudna decided to concentrate her research on RNA (ribonucleic acid), the workhorse partner of DNA. Since 2002, she has been a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where she directs a research lab.
The field of biochemistry, and Isaacson’s book, is filled with a mind-boggling profusion of 50-cent words, forgettable abbreviations, and clever acronyms. It’s a bit daunting to the non-scientist, but there really is no way around it. To try and understand this stuff, you have to learn its language and to understand Doudna’s story, the layman, myself included, also needs to understand the fundamental players in the drama.
The first one is DNA, the repository of the genetic code that makes every living thing what it is, the code that differentiates a horse from a human, a house cat from a cheetah. The second player is the lesser known mRNA (messenger RNA), the worker bee that carries the messages that in certain viruses can contain the actual life coding. Science has known of these for decades, but more recently a new character entered the story—CRISPR.
CRISPR is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” of DNA found in many bacteria. Scientists have been fascinated with these repeats for some time, but unsure what they did. Around the turn of this century, a number of researchers around the world independently determined that these repeated sequences are from viruses that had previously infected the bacteria and therefore could provide immunity from further infection. Amazingly, over millennia of evolution, bacteria had developed a genetic defense against viruses! As Doudna has said, “nature is beautiful that way.”
In 2012, Doudna and her friend and collaborator, French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier, reported on their research showing a CRISPR enzyme named Cas9 could actually be programmed to edit DNA, to detect and destroy a virus cheaply and effectively. This past November, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2020 Nobel prize to Doudna and Charpentier, citing their discovery as one of the most significant in the history of biology. Future editing of genes to conquer diseases from sickle cell to cancers is now a viable possibility.
Isaacson’s inclusion of the “future of the human race” in his subtitle is no hyperbole. Editing existing genes to fight disease is one thing, but the same technique might also be used to edit inheritable genes for more morally troubling purposes—to produce super human athletes (or soldiers), to fulfill a madman’s plan for a “perfect” race of humans, or to produce some prospective parents’ idea of the most desirable child. Science could be looking at the fundamental alteration of the human race into something we today would never recognize.
A graduate student researcher in Spain coined the acronym CRISPR for the palindromic repeats that already existed in nature, waiting to be discovered. Doudna and scientists learned to use CRISPR and immediately understood the downside to their programming techniques. They are now working to establish gene editing ground rules and the consensus seems to be that editing to cure is fine and encouraged; editing to inherit permanent enhancements to humans is not.
Isaacson does a masterful job of breaking an esoteric subject into digestible short chapters and comprehensible prose. The result is a challenging, but worthwhile read. The Code Breaker is more than a chronicle of Jennifer Doudna’s progression from a curious little girl in Hawaii to world renown scientist. It’s also a tribute to the curiosity that drives basic research and the scientists around the world who contributed to the most far-reaching discovery of our time.
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.