The Code Breaker

Never has a science conference sounded so fun and dramatic! This is an accessible and fast-paced biography of Jennifer Doudna, the 2020 Nobel laureate in chemistry, and the army of scientists who uncovered the many steps to make gene editing possible.

At its heart, The Code Breaker celebrates how life-changing scientific discoveries come from all sorts of adventures and personalities. For example, a cheese company researching how bacteria can resist viruses (because bacteria is the foundation of the dairy industry) contributes to the development of gene editing technology!

Gene therapies have been around for a while – delivering engineered DNA into human cells. This doesn’t change the DNA of the patient – it’s not gene editing, which aims to edit out the problematic DNA sequence in a patient.

To explain very briefly – DNA transmits ‘inheritable transformations.’ RNA carries out the coded instructions in DNA but does far more. When some bacteria are infected by a new virus and survive, they are able to copy the virus’s DNA and acquire immunity via RNA by cutting DNA in a targeted spot and inserting a new piece of DNA. This is CRISPR. It can be harnessed and programmed to cut any DNA sequence – this is gene editing.

The story of this science is the stories of curiosity, jealousy, stress, ambition, divided scientific communities, races towards first publication and patent wars. The ‘rogue’ Chinese scientist who gene-edited twin babies with HIV shows how difficult it is to shape and implement laws and guidelines on how this new frontier of science is put to use.

Scientists themselves form companies to capitalise on their discoveries, exhibiting a strong interconnection with Silicon Valley and investor culture. And yet, the same competing factions came together in the fight against coronavirus. This book shows how scientists are harnessing progress to combat this virus and prep for future dangers.

It wraps up with a stellar chapter on morality and thought experiments of when and how gene editing would be considered acceptable that made me find myself slipping and sliding on the slope towards open-mindedness about the endless possibilities. 

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