The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson - review by Helen Pearson

Helen Pearson

The Other C Word

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race


Simon & Schuster 560pp £30

The last year has provided a shocking demonstration of the power of viruses to shape our lives. A tiny parcel of genetic code that probably evolved in bats and then wended its way into humans has killed over two million people, closed down swathes of the planet and set back decades of progress towards reducing poverty and inequality. Researchers worldwide leapt to study the coronavirus responsible.

Before this, however, biologists liked to debate how another aspect of virology, known as CRISPR, might upend humanity. CRISPR technology allows scientists to alter the genetic sequences of organisms. In the last decade, it has become one of the hottest and most widely discussed fields in biological research on account of the powerful, sometimes controversial uses it could find, including the cure of genetic diseases and crop enhancement. This is the subject of The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson, which tells the story of the juicily competitive race to develop CRISPR technology.

Isaacson tells the CRISPR story from the vantage point of Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their remarkable research into CRISPR, providing a satisfying win for women in a prize that too often

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