The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Issacson #Simon and Schuster @JanBelisle @absltmom

Jan and I took on this massive book about Jennifer Doudna, and while we were very interested in some of the story, there were parts that seemed overloaded and repetitive. Without her science background, I would have been lost in some of the detail, but thankfully Jan was able to fill in the gaps. This book will attract people who are interested in science and those who were very interested in discovering the science behind the vaccine for today’s pandemic, Covid, possibly eliminating this disease and providing hope for the future through gene editing. It is definitely a brave new world being thrust upon us and the challenges will be many.

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

Jan’s review

Until 2020, only five women, beginning with Marie Curie in 1911, had won a Nobel for chemistry. But 2020 was the year it went to two women, Jennifer Doudna and French colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, for the development of CRISPR, a gene editing technology.

Isaacson hones in on Doudna and Charpentier, but he also highlights others in the scientific community whose work led the way and contributed to this new discovery. Some of the more interesting chapters deals with biohackers, rivalries, patents, and the personality quirks of the major players, as well as the use of the current technology and it’s ethical implications.

With the interesting bits, there was a very heavy emphasis on the science. Too heavy in my opinion. I have a degree in science and still found myself skimming through some of the more dense material. I fear that due to this unfortunate tendency of the author’s, this book will hold limited appeal. In addition, there’s a lot of repetition with the same information and stories told over and over. Finally, the author tends to insert himself into the narrative too much, adding little value.

For the above reasons I would recommend this book only with reservations. I’m glad I read it, but I think it would be an even more powerful book had it been condensed and edited.

But onto more of the good….

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the significance of CRISPR is more vital than ever. This is the technology that was used to develop Covid tests and more importantly, the Covid vaccine, which was developed so quickly because the groundwork for it was already in place after decades of research. Instead of the usual competition and closely guarded work, there was global cooperation. It was encouraging to see rivalries set aside in the midst of a global health crisis.

Along with the usefulness of this technology in fighting Covid, these scientific advances comes ethical questions. Few would argue developing the use of gene editing to treat or prevent diseases such as cancer, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s chorea, cystic fibrosis, and mental illness. But where do we draw the line and who gets to choose where that line is? Should parents be able to choose the gender, skin color, height, and intelligence, along with other ‘desirable” traits of their children? Would we eliminate the diversity and traits that have led to the genius of Einstein, Mozart, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Steve Jobs, Tolstoy? We aren’t there quite yet, but there’s already differences of opinion. These are the questions that future generations will have to answer and consider the implications.

This book highlights the importance of scientific inquiry, research, and the practical real-world use of these advances. No one could have predicted how the world would be impacted in 2020/21 from the discoveries of DNA, mRNA, and CRISPr. Science has always been a collaboration that endures through the ages, from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick to Doudna and Charpentier.

“At the end of the day, the discoveries are what endure,” Charpentier says. “We are just passing on this planet for a short time. We do our job, and then we leave and others pick up the work.”

I hope this book will inspire and encourage more young women to go into the sciences, specifically research.

3.5 stars: 5+ stars for the science community, including Doudna and Charpentier. 2 stars for the extraneous information in telling the story.

• This was a buddy read with my friend Marialyce, and while we both had reservations with the way the story was told, it inspired many thoughtful discussions.
• I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Publication date is March 9, 2021 by Simon & Schuster

Marialyce’s review

I have loved all the three books that I was fortunate enough to read by Walter Issacson from Einstein, The Innovators, to Steve Job, this author was able to enthrall me with the main topics he chose to share and write of. However, sad to say, his new book on Jennifer Doudna entitled The Code Breaker really left me feeling disappointed and let down.  Wondering why this was, I will preface this that there was a huge amount of science, very technical science which did bog down the story. Now, I do realize the importance of this science particularly as we are combating a pandemic, but at times I felt the author tried to immerse himself inferring how smart he was to truly understand and compete with these scientists and researchers. I certainly am not saying that Issacson is not a brilliant man, but his repetition of sections of the tale often made for that horrid sense of boredom boredom to set in.

The other thing that annoyed me by the end was that I knew nothing about Dr Doudna, a winner with her former coworker of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2020. Her finding of the CRISPR-Cas9 , along with its cofounder, Emmanuelle Marie Charpentier, opened up brand-new avenues that science can readily travel into a “brave” new world, one where genetically modified DNA was shown and where both the biology, chemistry, engineering, and ethics come into play. I learned much about the science and Jennifer’s education, but little of the women. I wanted to be let in on her home life. How did he balance all she did, the research, the traveling, the supervision of many with the demands of being a wife and a mother? We got a brief look into her formative years but I wanted more. How did she relate to her siblings and what exactly was her relationship with her father? (it was hinted at that there were some issues there) In reality, I was looking for the personal to be the main thrust of the book.

It’s a long story, where a plethora of scientists, doctoral students, post-doctoral candidates, engineers and so forth are presented and it’s not that I think these men and women do not deserve their moments, but it tended to cloudy up the telling.

In all, it takes commitment to read this book and I have a feeling that its reception will not be the one that this author has received previously in his wonderful works. Sad to say, this is not something I would heartily recommend and one I would caution the reader to be ready to be at times overwhelmed and needing a pause in its reading.

Thank you to NetGalley for a copy of this book due out March 9, 2021.

Once again thanks to my friend, Jan, for without her guidance, I would have been left not knowing so much about this important and fascinating work. As Jan has mentioned, there are not enough stars for the work and dedication of the science community making such discoveries and moving mankind forward.

2 thoughts on “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Issacson #Simon and Schuster @JanBelisle @absltmom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s