The Code Breaker
Walter Isaacson profiles Chemistry Nobel winner Jennifer Doudna and other scientists for their revolutionary gene-editing tool, also taking into its sweep the ethical implications of the work...
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 was shared by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. It is common for Nobel Laureates to be on hold for decades until their contribution to the advancement of a particular subfield in science is recognised. By that metric, Doudna and Emmanuelle's prize was remarkably quick. The first papers by the group had been written less than a decade ago.
Walter Isaacson is a biographer of several archetypal 'masculine geniuses' - men who have sparked intellectual and consequent cultural revolutions by their individual striving such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. Other than being timely and his first biography of a woman scientist, there are several other departures from his oeuvre. Doudna may be the central character but she is not the focus and the tropes of masculine genius pervading similar books - precociousness, adolescent non-conformity, sociopathy glossed over as eccentricity, the trouncing of resident Goliaths - are absent.
What comes through is the highly collaborative nature of 21st century science where 'breakthroughs' are the result of well-funded departments peopled by ambitious researchers who - along with their science - are acutely aware of goings-on in competing labs (largely in the United States and Europe).
Isaacson, a former editor of Time and also a historian, combines the best of these fields and what we get is not only riveting insight into how modern science works but engaging reflections on the ethics of gene editing, its history, and implications for humanity.
CRISPR, the breezy acronym of clustered regularly insterspaced short palindromic repeats, is the Microsoft Word of the genome editing world.
There are other gene editing tools too but while CRISPR isn't yet in the league of Microsoft, it's poised to be there. One of the reasons for this is an intense battle over patent rights to CRISPR led by the two rival teams of Doudna, at University of California, Berkeley, and Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute, MIT Boston. Isaacson has extensive interviews with several prominent biotechnologists who are embroiled, in various degrees, and the reader is left with a clear overview of the stakes involved. There are accusations of skulduggery, backstabbing and questionable academic conduct.
Until 2012, Doudna was yet to publish a significant scientific paper on CRISPR though there were already many groups of researchers who had put in place some important blocks. For instance, in order to protect themselves from viral attacks, bacteria had devised a system in which they stored chunks of assailing viral particles as repeating sets of genetic code within themselves.
Segments of RNA
This was to 'remember' these attacks and launch a defence in case of a future infection by the virus - much like how immune systems produce antibodies. Doudna played a seminal role in assembling scientists in her lab and forming intercontinental groups that used a variety of techniques to understand, at a molecular level, all the different components that showed how CRISPR-associated enzymes enabled the cutting and pasting of traces of viruses that attacked bacteria. They also created short segments of RNA that could guide a scissors-like enzyme to a virus and cut up its genetic material.
From here the field quickly moved to the realisation that these enzymes and techniques could be used to edit genes and remove and replace them in the cells of plants, animals and even people.
Isaacson goes on to describe how with such realisation came the revival of an older debate in genetic engineering on what were the boundaries, or whether there should be any, on modifying genes. If it was permissible to edit out genes that caused debilitating disease, was it any worse to tweak genes to create 'designer babies'?
The concern came into international spotlight when in 2018 it emerged that He Jiankui, a Chinese biotechnologist, trained in America, reported that he had edited out a gene linked with HIV, in embryos, implanted them in wombs of couples who had signed up for the process, and delivered 'healthy' children.
Jianke thought he had brought about a revolution but was met with global outrage, from Doudna and other scientists, as the prevailing American scientific consensus is that germline editing, or transforming undifferentiated human cells, was out of bounds. Jiankui is in jail, was fined $430,000 and banned for life from working in reproductive science.
The America conundrum
Though Isaacson devotes considerable space to the moral dilemmas that accompany gene editing, he does not consider the geopolitical question. Has America taken it upon itself to decide who gets to advance gene editing? If germline editing is repugnant now, why is it morally acceptable on Isaacson's part to not only condone, but pretty much extol as competition driven innovation, the battle for owning the patent rights to edit human genes for future commercial applications?
Already, in the United States there are a breed of 'bio-hackers', who ordered DNA-modifying CRISPR-based kits to edit their own genes, such as Josiah Zayner, who finds considerable space in the book. They see themselves as the computer technologists and Open Source pioneers of the 1970s. If the American exceptionalism can be muted, The Code Breaker is an expansive, eminently readable review of the genome revolution that we are currently living through.
Courtesy: THE HINDU