“The Code Breaker” (Simon & Schuster), the latest book from Walter Isaacson, bestselling biographer of geniuses from Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, tells the story of biochemist Jennifer Doudna and the creation of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR.
Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss correspondent David Pogue’s interview with Isaacson and Doudna on “CBS Sunday Morning” March 7!
Into the Breach
Jennifer Doudna couldn’t sleep. Berkeley, the university where she was a superstar for her role in inventing the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, had just shut down its campus because of the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic. Against her better judgment, she had driven her son, Andy, a high school senior, to the train station so he could go to Fresno for a robot-building competition. Now, at 2 a.m., she roused her husband and insisted that they retrieve him before the start of the match, when more than twelve hundred kids would be gathering in an indoor convention center. They pulled on their clothes, got in the car, found an open gas station, and made the three-hour drive. Andy, an only child, was not happy to see them, but they convinced him to pack up and come home. As they pulled out of the parking lot, Andy got a text from the team: “Robotics match cancelled! All kids to leave immediately!”
This was the moment, Doudna recalls, that she realized her world, and the world of science, had changed. The government was fumbling its response to COVID, so it was time for professors and graduate students, clutching their test tubes and raising their pipettes high, to rush into the breach. The next day – Friday, March 13, 2020 – she led a meeting of her Berkeley colleagues and other scientists in the Bay Area to discuss what roles they might play.
A dozen of them made their way across the abandoned Berkeley campus and converged on the sleek stone-and-glass building that housed her lab. The chairs in the ground-floor conference room were clustered together, so the first thing they did was move them six feet apart. Then they turned on a video system so that fifty other researchers from nearby universities could join by Zoom. As she stood in front of the room to rally them, Doudna displayed an intensity that she usually kept masked by a calm façade. “This is not something that academics typically do,” she told them. “We need to step up.”
It was fitting that a virus-fighting team would be led by a CRISPR pioneer. The gene-editing tool that Doudna and others developed in 2012 is based on a virus-fighting trick used by bacteria, which have been battling viruses for more than a billion years. In their DNA, bacteria develop clustered repeated sequences, known as CRISPRs, that can remember and then destroy viruses that attack them. In other words, it’s an immune system that can adapt itself to fight each new wave of viruses – just what we humans need in an era that has been plagued, as if we were still in the Middle Ages, by repeated viral epidemics.
Always prepared and methodical, Doudna (pronounced DOWD-nuh) presented slides that suggested ways they might take on the coronavirus. She led by listening. Although she had become a science celebrity, people felt comfortable engaging with her. She had mastered the art of being tightly scheduled while still finding the time to connect with people emotionally.
The first team that Doudna assembled was given the job of creating a coronavirus testing lab. One of the leaders she tapped was a postdoc named Jennifer Hamilton who, a few months earlier, had spent a day teaching me to use CRISPR to edit human genes. I was pleased, but also a bit unnerved, to see how easy it was. Even I could do it!
Another team was given the mission of developing new types of coronavirus tests based on CRISPR. It helped that Doudna liked commercial enterprises. Three years earlier, she and two of her graduate students had started a company to use CRISPR as a tool for detecting viral diseases.
In launching an effort to find new tests to detect the coronavirus, Doudna was opening another front in her fierce but fruitful struggle with a cross-country competitor. Feng Zhang, a charming young China-born and Iowa-raised researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, had been her rival in the 2012 race to turn CRISPR into a gene-editing tool, and ever since then they had been locked in an intense competition to make scientific discoveries and form CRISPR- based companies. Now, with the outbreak of the pandemic, they would engage in another race, this one spurred not by the pursuit of patents but by a desire to do good.
Doudna settled on ten projects. She suggested leaders for each and told the others to sort themselves into the teams. They should pair up with someone who would perform the same functions, so that there could be a battlefield promotion system: if any of them were struck by the virus, there would be someone to step in and continue their work. It was the last time they would meet in person. From then on the teams would collaborate by Zoom and Slack.
“I’d like everyone to get started soon,” she said. “Really soon.”
“Don’t worry,” one of the participants assured her. “Nobody’s got any travel plans.”
What none of the participants discussed was a longer-range prospect: using CRISPR to engineer inheritable edits in humans that would make our children, and all of our descendants, less vulnerable to virus infections. These genetic improvements could permanently alter the human race. “That’s in the realm of science fiction,” Doudna said dismissively when I raised the topic after the meeting. Yes, I agreed, it’s a bit like Brave New World or Gattaca. But as with any good science fiction, elements have already come true. In November 2018, a young Chinese scientist who had been to some of Doudna’s gene-editing conferences used CRISPR to edit embryos and remove a gene that produces a receptor for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It led to the birth of twin girls, the world’s first “designer babies.”
There was an immediate outburst of awe and then shock. Arms flailed, committees convened. After more than three billion years of evolution of life on this planet, one species (us) had developed the talent and temerity to grab control of its own genetic future. There was a sense that we had crossed the threshold into a whole new age, perhaps a brave new world, like when Adam and Eve bit into the apple or Prometheus snatched fire from the gods.
Our newfound ability to make edits to our genes raises some fascinating questions. Should we edit our species to make us less susceptible to deadly viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! Right? Should we use gene editing to eliminate dreaded disorders, such as Huntington’s, sickle-cell anemia, and cystic fibrosis? That sounds good, too. And what about deafness or blindness? Or being short? Or depressed? Hmmm … How should we think about that? A few decades from now, if it becomes possible and safe, should we allow parents to enhance the IQ and muscles of their kids? Should we let them decide eye color? Skin color? Height?
Whoa! Let’s pause for a moment before we slide all of the way down this slippery slope. What might that do to the diversity of our societies? If we are no longer subject to a random natural lottery when it comes to our endowments, will it weaken our feelings of empathy and acceptance? If these offerings at the genetic supermarket aren’t free (and they won’t be), will that greatly increase inequality – and indeed encode it permanently in the human race? Given these issues, should such decisions be left solely to individuals, or should society as a whole have some say? Perhaps we should develop some rules.
By “we” I mean we. All of us, including you and me. Figuring out if and when to edit our genes will be one of the most consequential questions of the twenty-first century, so I thought it would be useful to understand how it’s done. Likewise, recurring waves of virus epidemics make it important to understand the life sciences. There’s a joy that springs from fathoming how something works, especially when that something is ourselves. Doudna relished that joy, and so can we. That’s what this book is about.
The invention of CRISPR and the plague of COVID will hasten our transition to the third great revolution of modern times. These revolutions arose from the discovery, beginning just over a century ago, of the three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit, and the gene.
The first half of the twentieth century, beginning with Albert Einstein’s 1905 papers on relativity and quantum theory, featured a revolution driven by physics. In the five decades following his miracle year, his theories led to atom bombs and nuclear power, transistors and spaceships, lasers and radar.
The second half of the twentieth century was an information-technology era, based on the idea that all information could be encoded by binary digits – known as bits – and all logical processes could be performed by circuits with on-off switches. In the 1950s, this led to the development of the microchip, the computer, and the internet. When these three innovations were combined, the digital revolution was born.
Now we have entered a third and even more momentous era, a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code.
Excerpted from “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race” by Walter Isaacson. Copyright © 2021 by Walter Isaacson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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