I don’t need to prove to you how great a biographer Walter Isaacson is. I first discovered him with his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and then was totally awed by The Innovators, focused on the creators of the digital revolution. And of course, you probably read his biography of Steve Jobs and/or Leonardo da Vinci.
These titles and many more show how he zooms in on key genii. Jennifer Doudna is certainly one of them, so I was totally thrilled when I won The Code Breaker through Goodreads.
In case you don’t know who Doudna is, let me say briefly that with Emmanuelle Charpentier (yes, another French Emmanuelle 😉 ), American biochemist Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 “for the development of a method for genome editing”, called CRISPR.
Isaacson writes in a very dynamic way that is never boring.
Besides, he always makes you feel smarter than you are: I hardly know anything about biology or chemistry, and even less in biochemistry, but he explains everything so clearly that I believe now I have a good idea of what CRISPR is.
The book obviously focuses on Jennifer, on her own origins and what led her to this path. It’s also a lot about many other important current scientists (Emmanuelle Charpentier of course, but many others) working in this field.
There is actually a painful part of the book, when the author shows how ugly the race to patents can be.
But to redeem the lot, when Covid-19 got on the scene, they all decided to pitch in, to share their resources and discoveries for free, in order to try to find vaccines and solutions as fast as possible.
A method for genome editing in order to find cures, especially for genetical diseases is all and well, but you can quickly see how thin the line is to cross and edit genes for many other reasons.
Isaacson spends many pages about all the moral questions involved. It was fascinating and enlightening. The answer is not obvious. He helped me expand my reflection on the topic. If you wonder about bioethics, I highly recommend you read this book.
Last part is about Covid-19 and various forms of Coronavirus. I particularly appreciated when Isaacson took time to explain the different types of vaccines in existence right now, and the ones in development, as CRISPR will definitely be a major tool against such diseases as well as cancers.
VERDICT: Essential, fascinating, and easily accessible presentation of Jennifer Doudna. A must if you want to stay up to date on CRISPR and its moral questions.