Famed biographer Walter Isaacson’s latest book examines how “Crispr” tecnnology developed and how it’s changing our world

Cover of "The Codebreaker"
with Dr. Jennifer Doudna
right: author Walter Isaacson

By MARTIN ZEILIG During the recent rebroadcast of an interview on CBC Radio’s science show, Quirks & Quarks, Dr. Jennifer Doudna told how it “was a real shock” when she received an early morning telephone call notifying her of having been co-awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
She’s a humble person. But, she shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology at University of California, Berkeley, and her collaborator, a French professor and researcher in microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Germany, were awarded the prize for the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technique.
This meticulously researched book by author Walter Isaacson takes a reader into the quest by Doudna and Charpentier that eventually led to their breakthrough discovery. We see Doudna as a liberal minded and generous person, as well as a brilliant and driven research scientist.

Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane University, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and an editor at Time Magazine. He is the author of “Leonardo da Vinci”, “The Innovators”, “Steve Jobs”, “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”, and “Kissinger: A Biography”, also the coauthor of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made”.

The essence of CRISPR (an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is simple: It’s a way of finding a specific bit of DNA inside a cell.

“CRISPR technology also has the potential to transform medicine, enabling us to not only treat but also prevent many diseases. We may even decide to use it to change the genomes of our children. An attempt to do this in China has been condemned as premature and unethical, but some think it could benefit children in the future, notes online information. After that, the next step in CRISPR gene editing is usually to alter that piece of DNA. However, CRISPR has also been adapted to do other things too, such as turning genes on or off without altering their sequence.
“There were ways to edit the genomes of some plants and animals before the CRISPR method was unveiled in 2012 but it took years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says the science site.
“CRISPR has made it cheap and easy.

“CRISPR is already widely used for scientific research, and in the not too distant future many of the plants and animals in our farms, gardens or homes may have been altered with CRISPR. In fact, some people already are eating CRISPRed food.
“CRISPR is being used for all kinds of other purposes too, from fingerprinting cells and logging what happens inside them to directing evolution and treating gene drives.
“The key to CRISPR is the many flavours of “Cas” proteins found in bacteria, where they help defend against viruses. The Cas9 protein is the most widely used by scientists. This protein can easily be programmed to find and bind to almost any desired target sequence, simply by giving it a piece of RNA to guide it in its search.”

Isaacson describes how a young Doudna came home one day from grade school to find that her father had left a paperback issue of the book, “The Double Helix”, by James Watson, on her bed. That classic and compelling story about Watson and his collaborator Frances Crick’s (1916-2004) race to discover the structure of DNA delighted Doudna.
Years later, Watson praised Doudna for her role in, as the author writes, “the most important biological advance” since his codiscovery of the structure of DNA.

There are many other prominent and not so well known names, at least to the non-science community, referenced in this superb story.
“The inner workings of molecules may remain, for most people, as mysterious as those of microchips, but at least all of us will be a bit more aware of the beauty and power of both,” the author writes.

“By honoring CRISPR, a virus-fighting system found in nature, in the midst of a virus pandemic, the Nobel committee reminded us how curiosity-driven basic research can end up having very practical applications. CRISPR and COVID are speeding our entry into a life-science era. Molecules are becoming the new microchips.”
This book helps us to understand that brave new world.

“The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race”
by Walter Isaacson
(Simon & Schuster 536 pg. $40.00)