The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

“The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race” by Walter Isaacson; Simon & Schuster (560 pages, $35).

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

Bestselling author Walter Isaacson is famous for his in-depth technical biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, and other historic figures wrapped in the emerging technologies of their time. The Code Breaker is no exception, for in this book Isaacson introduces us to Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues as they make history with their creation of a revolutionary new biotechnology called CRISPR that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies.

CRISPR is a new genetic engineering technology by which the genomes (DNA) of living organisms may be modified. The cell’s genome can be cut at a desired location, allowing existing genes to be removed and/or new ones added into living organisms. The technique is highly significant as it allows for genomes to be edited with extreme precision, cheaply and with ease. It can be used in the creation of new medicines, agricultural products, and genetically modified organisms, or as a means of controlling pathogens and pests. It has possibilities in the treatment of inherited genetic diseases as well as somatic mutations such as cancer.

Jennifer Doudna’s recent advances with CRISPR are considered some of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology. However, its use in human genetic modification is highly controversial. There are many beneficial modifications that could be made to the DNA of our children. Would you want your child to be born immune to many common diseases? What if doctors could ensure your child would not be born with down syndrome or dwarfism? What if doctors could make your child biologically more resilient to depression or obesity? What if you could choose your child’s eye color, hair color, and height? What if you could give your child a higher IQ? What if these procedures were expensive? What if they were cheap and widely available? For better or worse, CRISPR seems like it will be mass produced, cheap, and easy to use.

The world’s first genetically modified humans have already been born: a pair of twin sisters who had their genes modified to render them immune to HIV/AIDS. The future is coming whether we’re comfortable with it or not. Whose values will ultimately end up guiding gene editing experiments? Which nations will be the first to tread on what you or I may consider forbidden ground? What does this new era of scientific inquiry mean for the future of the human species, now that we can essentially edit ourselves? Walter does not attempt to answer these questions, and neither will I, but it is important that the public starts to become aware of this new technology, because like many revolutionary technologies before it, it will probably be impacting our society faster than lawmakers can make policies.

As for the book itself, The Code Breaker is written in a compelling, masterfully crafted style. Isaacson holds our hand and guides us carefully through the history of genetics, from Darwin’s theories of evolution, to the discovery of DNA & RNA, to the modern gene-modifying escapades of Jennifer Doudna. Every step of the way, Walter puts us in the perspective of those highly competitive scientists of generations past as they discovered each new piece of the puzzle to the human genome. He also explains it all in layman’s terms for us non-geneticists, which in the end, helps the reader better understand the microscopic workings of CRISPR.

With equal attention to detail, Isaacson tells the inspiring story of Jennifer Doudna’s life, her rise to the top of her competitive field, and every microscopic biological mystery she and her team of science-detectives had to solve on their path to Nobel fame and CRISPR. Walter’s book is as much a tribute to those who came before as it is it a biography of Jennifer’s life and our introduction to CRISPR. Considering that CRISPR will surely be the topic of great public debate in our near future, I highly recommend everyone who isn’t a geneticist to give The Code Breaker a good long read.

Donavon Anderson is a Reference Assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at or 336-229-3588.