Book Review - The Code Breaker

This cover image released by Simon & Schuster shows "The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race," by Walter Isaacson.

Walter Isaacson did a masterful job on his biography of Steve Jobs, a hard-to-like character who revolutionized six industries — personal computers, phones, music, animated movies, tablet computing and digital publishing.

In “Code Breaker,” Isaacson’s central character is the much more likable biochemistry researcher and Nobel Prize winner, Jennifer Doudna, but the science is a tougher subject for the ordinary person to embrace.

Prerequisites almost are required — biology 101 and chemistry 101 would be helpful in grasping the roles of introns and cryocooling crystals, as examples.

Star of the book is CRISPR — Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — the ability of scientists to modify genes which then can allow them to, for example, repair defective genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis.

And at 512 pages, Code Breaker is a hefty reading-time investment with big doses of science. A tough read at times with textbook-like digressions into the supporting science.

Isaacson conveys all this though with unflagging enthusiasm, as if he can barely restrain himself from turning into a scientist himself.

The ramifications of Doudna and her colleagues’ work is wondrous, scary and a testimony to the scientific expertise at our universities and research institutions.

In those research labs, Doudna and her colleagues are developing some of the pivotal breakthroughs in human history, providing the prospect of giving humans the ability to eliminate the threat of many diseases by modifying those genetic strands. 

From there, it’s a short step to creating designer humans. Want a tall child with brown eyes and dark hair? That ability raises moral and ethical concerns humans have not yet faced.

The electronics revolution has changed everything about how we live, now the life-sciences revolution offers the ability to change life itself.

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