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

Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster, $35 (560p) ISBN 978-1-9821-1585-2

Biographer Isaacson (Leonardo da Vinci) depicts science at its most exhilarating in this lively biography of Jennifer Doudna, the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on the CRISPR system of gene editing. Born in 1964, Doudna grew up in Hawaii, where she felt isolated and, “like many others who have felt like an outsider, she developed a wide-ranging curiosity about how we humans fit into creation.” Praising her sharp mix of curiosity and competitiveness, Isaacson tracks her role in the race to develop CRISPR technology (which can easily and precisely cut human DNA sequences to change genes), explores the promises of the technique (such as potential cures for sickle cell anemia and cancer) and describes fears that it might herald a world of genetically engineered “designer babies.” Isaacson offers an impassioned take on CRISPR—“I look into the microscope and see them glowing green!” he remarks, peering at a culture of gene-edited cells—along with vivid portraits of the scientists Doudna worked with, including the “guarded but engaging” Emmanuelle Charpentier, with whom she won the Nobel Prize. The result is a gripping account of a great scientific advancement and of the dedicated scientists who realized it. Photos. Agent: Binky Urban, ICM Partners. (Mar.)