Code Breaker review by Walter Isaacson – a science page turner | Science and nature books

ohone of the most striking passages in Walter Isaacson’s new book ends near the end. It is 2019 and a scientific meeting is underway at the famous Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State, but James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is banned from it due to racist views and scientifically unfounded that it has. expressed on intelligence. Isaacson, who is to interview Watson, must therefore go to the house on the nearby campus that the scientist has been allowed to keep. When the conversation gets dangerously close to the question of the race, someone shouts from the kitchen, “If you’re going to let him say these things, then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Watson, 91, shrugs and changes course.

The voice of the kitchen belonged to Rufus, Watson’s middle-aged son who suffers from schizophrenia. “My father’s statements could make him sound like a fanatic and discriminatory,” he once said. “They just represent his rather narrow interpretation of genetic fate.” In many ways, Isaacson observes, Rufus is wiser than his father.

Genetic fate is a central theme of The code breaker, Isaacson’s portrayal of gene-editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna, who, along with a small army of other scientists, handed mankind the first truly effective tools to shape it. Rufus Watson’s thoughts sum up the ambivalence many people feel about this. If we had the power to rid future generations of diseases like schizophrenia, would we? The immoral choice would be not to do it, surely? What if we could improve healthy human beings by removing blemishes? The nagging worry – which might one day seem ridiculously ridiculous, if not cruel – is that we would lose something with these diseases and imperfections, in terms of wisdom, compassion, and, more difficult to define, humanity.

Emmanuelle Charpentier, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Doudna. Photograph: Peter Steffen / AP

Doudna helped identify Crispr, a system that has evolved in bacteria for billions of years to repel invading viruses. Crispr-Cas9, to give it its name, disarms viruses by cutting their DNA. Bacteria invented it, but the idea that won Doudna – a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley – the Nobel Prize in chemistry last year, along with French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, was that he could be adapted to modify genes in other organisms, including humans. The article that sealed the duo’s fame was published in 2012, while Charpentier was working at Umeå University in Sweden. As of early 2020, two dozen human trials were underway for medical applications of the technique – for conditions ranging from cancer to atherosclerosis to a congenital form of blindness.

Crispr’s story is made for cinema. It features a fierce race, more than its fair share of renegades, the highest prize in chemistry, a mammoth battle for patents, baby creators and acres of ethical quicksand. However, this presents a challenge for a biographer who must choose one character among several to carry this story. Isaacson chose Doudna, and you can see why. Having contributed to elucidating the fundamental science of Crispr, it remains involved in its clinical applications and in the ethical debate that it has sparked – unlike Charpentier who has declared that he does not want to be defined by Crispr and is now pursuing other scientific questions. Doudna is the common thread of the story.

Still, you can’t help but wonder how this story might have read if it had been told from the perspective of Francisco Mojica, the Spanish scientist who first spotted Crispr in bacteria inhabiting salt ponds in the 1990s. He sensed that this was doing something important, then stubbornly pursued this line of research despite a lack of funding and everyone telling him he was wasting his time. Another story could still have been told by the two French food scientists who realized in 2007 that Crispr could be used to vaccinate bacteria against viruses, thus securing the future of the global yogurt industry, or the Lithuanian biochemist Virginijus Šikšnys, who moved the story again, but whose work was rejected by top journals.

Each made a vital contribution, and it’s hard to say which, if any, was the most important. A similar dilemma preoccupied Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann in their 2001 play Oxygen, who asked who should receive a “Retro-Nobel” for the discovery of the eponymous gas. Should it go to the scientist who discovered oxygen but did not publish his discovery, the one who published but did not understand the meaning of the discovery, or the one who grasped its meaning but only through the ideas of the two others ?

Focusing on Doudna also portrays Crispr’s story as more American than it was. Doudna herself has recognized its international dimension, on her own account, A crack in creation (2017). “All in all, we would be quite an international group,” she wrote of the team that produced the 2012 seminal article, “a French professor in Sweden, a Polish student in Austria, a German student, a Czech postdoctoral fellow and an American professor. in Berkeley ”. The fact that her Czech postdoctoral fellow and Charpentier’s Polish student grew up close to each other – on both sides of a border – and that they both speak Polish, reinforced the synergy of the group and accelerated the writing of the article.

It is precisely because so many people have contributed, and because they disagree on the importance and the primacy of their contributions, that they remain tangled up on the subject of ownership. The Crispr revolution owes a great deal to America and the importance it places on creativity and innovation, but like so many scientific breakthroughs, there was an element of convergence – people reaching independently and more or less simultaneously to the same idea. (Isaacson suggests that the radar and the atomic bomb were also American inventions, but radar was developed in many countries as WWII approached, while European refugees from that war helped build the bomb. .)

It is not just the process of discovery that is collective. As soon as a discovery is made public, an even wider circle of people apply it, and they may not have the same priorities. It’s easy and fair to condemn Chinese maverick He Jiankui for altering the genes of twins Lulu and Nana, supposedly to protect them from HIV infection, but in his passionate response to Doudna’s criticisms of his act, it seems buried a grain of truth. “You don’t understand China,” he told her. “There is an incredible stigma attached to being HIV positive and I wanted to give these people a chance to lead normal lives…” Genetic fate means different things to different people, as Rufus Watson understands.

Isaacson, who is best known for his lives as Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci, remains an accomplished portrait painter. He captures the frontier spirit of Harvard geneticist George Church in an anecdote of how, when Church was a child, his doctor-in-law father-in-law let him administer hormone injections to his patients (Church recently tested experimental Covid-19 vaccines on itself). Isaacson also has a privileged point of view, knowing the history of Crispr and the people who shaped it. In 2000, as editor-in-chief of Time, he put the two men leading competing efforts to sequence the human genome – Francis Collins and Craig Venter – on the cover. He understands the tensions that lead to discovery and how flawed brilliant people can be. This story was always guaranteed to be a page-turner in his hands. It’s just that science has overtaken biography as a medium. His subject should have been Crispr, not Doudna.

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race is published by Simon & Schuster (£ 30). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.