Amazing guide to CRISPR-Cas 9 by a science historian
Reviewed in the United States on 19 March 2021
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 was awarded jointly to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material." However, it was only after the publication of the book “Double Helix” by Watson in 1968 that DNA became a household word and the world came to realize that it had entered the biomolecular age. More than half of a century later, in 2020, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing” This time, it took only a few months for the book “The Code-Breaker” by science historian Walter Isaacson to be published. Irrespective whether the hard-to-pronounce gene cutter, “CRISPR-Cas9” will become a household word, there is hardly any doubt that “the future of the Human Race” (the subtitle of the book), is at stake.
Although the main character of the book is Jennifer Doudna, the account of her journey in the discovery of CRISPR-Cas 9 involves a cast of amazing group of colleagues, collaborators and competitors. Foremost among them are her main collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier and her main competitor Feng Zhang. Other interesting personalities include several scientists in her lab at Berkeley, Director of the MIT Broad Institute Eric Lander, Professor George Church of Harvard, to name just a few. Then there is the Chinese doctor He Jiankui, whose project on CRISPR babies Nana and Lulu brought him jail instead of glory, and the colorful biohacker Josiah Zayner, who wanted to demonstrate on YouTube how easy CRISPR is and to inspire people to do that at home.
The color photos throughout the book add to the liveliness of their stories.
The stories told in the book illustrate many characteristics common to scientists – ambitious, competitive, eager to be first and eager to be recognized, occasional selfishness but also capable of generosity. It is touching to see that, in fighting Covid 19, rival teams come together to collaborate and they made their findings freely available to the community instead of fighting for patents. It is timely to learn that the Covid mRNA vaccines developed is directly the result of the research that led to CRISPR.
Above all, scientists are driven by curiosity and the beauty of nature. Both the book and the author’s TV interviews cited Jennifer’s curiosity as a little girl growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, wondering why the fernlike leaves of “sleeping grass” curl up when touched. There was no mention in the book whether Jennifer found the biological mechanism which led to the leaves folding. It would be nice to add a sentence or two to explain the reason (for the un-initiated).
The scientists in the story are also keenly aware of the consequences of their discoveries to society and mankind. There were several conferences devoted to discuss the ethical and moral problems concerning gene-editing. Attempts were made to formulate guidelines in conducting future research, without noticeable success. The author presents a number of thought experiments to illustrate the complexity of these issues, which centered around under what circumstances is it ethical and moral to intervene with gene-editing. If it is up to me, I would say that absolute medical necessity and getting rid of unbearable suffering should be the main, if not the sole criteria.
The book ends with two moving stories, one joyful and one sad. The joyful one involves the reconciliation of Jennifer and Emmanuelle, who had drifted apart after their Nobel prize winning Discovery, due to differences in personality. The sad one concerns James Watson, who was ostracized by his own Institution, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, for saying racially insensitive things.
There are memorable and provocative quotes in the book, two of which are given below:
“If man wants to play God, he has to first learn to be man.” - author unknown
“If scientists don’t play God, who will?” - James Watson
Finally, the author is to be complimented that, while he studied almost everything under the sun (history, literature, politics, philosophy and economics) in college, except science, he was able to guide the reader through the jungle of DNA, RNA, CRISPR, CAS, CARVER, PAC-MAN, etc. Most amazing of all, he even learned to use CRASPR-cas9 to edit.
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