The genome editing capabilities of CRISPR/Cas9 have created an enormous amount of excitement and an equal amount of concern within the scientific community. It is therefore unsurprising that this contentious form of biotechnology has entered the cultural zeitgeist and become a key topic of public interest.
The origin story of CRISPR, and its ongoing commercial evolution, is the main focus of Walter Isaacson's new biography, 'The Code Breaker'. Isaacson, who is the editor of Time magazine and a professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, is a seasoned author, with a string of non-fiction novels under his belt, including biographies on Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Code Breaker is really a story of two halves. The first half of the book focuses on the history of CRISPR where Isaacson has diligently interviewed all of the main researchers who were instrumental in the development of the genome editing approach. Isaacson details each of the main research discoveries that propelled the science of CRISPR forward, to the point where it could be used to alter the genetic code within mammalian cells.
This approach could have easily resulted in a dense, impenetrable scientific text, however, Isaacson has managed to bring a lightness to the story by weaving the 'hard science' into the biographies of each key research scientist. While some of the personal stories feel a bit redundant and long-winded (there are a lot of childhood anecdotes), they do bring a human element to the CRISPR story which helps set the scene for the conflict and arguments that eventually arise amongst the researchers as the science advances and it becomes clear that a significant amount of money and professional kudos are at stake.
There are a plethora of researchers who made a vital contribution to the developedment of CRISPR, and it is difficult to say which contribution was the most important. As Isaacson points out 'almost every person in any saga remembers their own role as being a little more important than the other players see it'. This definitely rings true in the CRISPR story and it has created drama and tension within the research community. I did thoroughly enjoy reading about the cut-throat side of scientific research, and the less than exemplary behaviour that some scientists employed to try and win the CRISPR battle.
I hadn't fully appreciated just how many research teams were vying to be the first to demonstrate that CRISPR could be used to intentionally modify the genome. Professor Jennifer Doudna and Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their role in developing the CRISPR/Cas-9 genome editing technology (see BioNews 1070), however, bioengineer Professor Feng Zhang and geneticist Professor George Church were exceptionally close to publishing the same development. Professors Doudna and Charpentier managed to pip them to the post and take the CRISPR crown.
The second half of the book focuses on the application of CRISPR in the real world and the ethical issues that this technology can bring. Isaacson describes the way the CRISPR approach has the potential to revolutionise the medical treatment for sickle cell anaemia, cancer and inherited forms of blindness. However, he also questions whether CRISPR-based treatment will only be available to those who can financially afford it, thereby creating a two-tier healthcare system, which will further exacerbate health inequalities.
The book also explores the ethical tension that exists between 'biohackers' and academic scientists. Isaacson rather poetically refers to biohackers as 'the spirited band of renegade researchers and merry hobbyists who want to democratise biology through citizen science and bring its power to the people'. The readers are introduced to 'biohacker' Josiah Zayner, who sells DIY genetic engineering kits, which use the CRISPR approach to make the muscles of a frog double in size. Zayner caused a stir at the 2017 Global Synthetic Biology Summit by injecting himself with the same CRISPR construct that he uses to genetically modify his frogs. This was apparently in an attempt to see whether he could also make his own muscles bigger (although this appeared to be more of a publicity stunt rather than a genuine experiment). Zayner firmly believes that CRISPR should not be confined to professional research laboratories and he emphatically tells Isaacson that 'no great technology has flourished until people had complete access to it'.
The Code Breaker is predominantly about CRISPR, however, Isaacson has tried to create a book this is more akin to a biography than a traditional popular science book. He has centred the book around Nobel Laureate Professor Doudna, and has used her as a touchstone throughout the book to link the overall narrative and to create one cohesive text.
Nevertheless, it feels slightly strange that Professor Doudna has this starring role in the book, as she is just one key player, among many, in the CRISPR story. It would have perhaps been better to keep CRISPR as the star of the show, rather than one person, as at some points the book does feel slightly biased towards Professor Doudna and her actions, over those of her research competitors.
Overall, this is a really enjoyable book that would be of interest to those with a love of scientific discoveries and ethical discussions. The book is quite a hefty tome at 481 pages, however, Isaacson, has managed to create a narrative that is light and easy to read. He has also done an excellent job of describing complex biochemistry and genetics in an easy to digest manner. As a result, the book is very accessible and the readers do not need to have extensive prior knowledge of CRISPR, although, a basic understanding of biology may be helpful. The CRISPR story itself is full of drama and ethical debate and this has translated well onto the page, creating a text that is both engaging and exciting.