The-Code-Breaker - by Walter Issacson
I’ve read quite a few books from Walter Issacson: Leonardo da Vinci, The Innovators, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Einstein. I love them all. For this journey about CRISPR, I appreciate the conflict he put into the story: the heroes like Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and George Church; and the “villains”: Feng Zhang, Jiankui He. I also love the thought experiments about where we should draw the line about gene-editing homo sapiens.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
In their DNA, bacteria develop clustered repeated sequences, known as CRISPRs, that can remember and then destroy viruses that attack them.
“Come on, Dad,” she pleaded, “I will never get in.” To which he replied, “You certainly won’t get in if you don’t apply.”
It was called the Human Genome Project, and its goal was to figure out the sequence of the three billion base pairs in our DNA and map the more than twenty thousand genes that these base pairs encode.
CRISPR, for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”
Mojica found that bacteria with CRISPR spacer sequences seemed to be immune from infection by a virus that had the same sequence. But bacteria without the spacer did get infected.
the CRISPR-associated enzymes was to grab bits of DNA out of the attacking viruses and insert them into the bacteria’s own DNA, sort of like cutting and pasting a mug shot of dangerous viruses.
“The more one moves, the more one learns to analyze as a new situation and see things that others who have been in the system a long time have not identified.”
Rather than being upset that they had been scooped, Barrangou said he realized that they had been bested fairly. In fact, as they were walking down the hill to the restaurant, he asked Doudna whether he and Šikšnys might do well to withdraw their paper that was still pending publication. She smiled. “No, Rodolphe, your paper will be fine,” she said. “Don’t withdraw it. It makes its own contribution, just like we all try to do.”
On that question would hang patents and prizes.
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace converging on the idea of evolution or Newton and Leibniz disputing who first figured out calculus.
Zhang’s path to biology began with his Des Moines middle school’s Gifted and Talented Program, which included a Saturday enrichment class in molecular biology.
In Des Moines, this included a program called STING (Science/Technology Investigations: The Next Generation), which tapped a small group of talented and motivated students to do original projects and work at local hospitals or research institutions.
Zhang was at Harvard at the same time as Mark Zuckerberg, and it’s interesting to speculate on which of them will end up having the most impact on the world.
Zhang says. “Growing up in my family, I mistakenly thought that psychiatric disease was when someone just wasn’t being strong enough.” Zhang would sit with his friend to help him avoid suicide. (The student took time off and recovered.) The experience caused Zhang to turn his attention to researching treatments for mental illness.
But coronavirus made the rivalry less cutthroat, because patents were not a paramount concern. “The awesomely good thing about this terrible situation is that all the intellectual property questions have been put aside, and everyone’s really intent on just finding solutions,” says Chen. “People are focused on getting something out there that works, rather than on the business aspect of it.”
“The beauty of CRISPR is that once you have the platform, then it’s just a matter of reconfiguring your chemistry to detect a different virus,” Chen explains. “It can be used for the next pandemic or any virus. It can also be used against any bacteria or anything that has a genetic sequence, even cancer.”
Developers and entrepreneurs may someday be able to use CRISPR-based home testing kits as platforms on which to build a variety of biomedical apps: virus detection, disease diagnosis, cancer screening, nutritional analyses, microbiome assessments, and genetic tests.
With his disarming gentility and friendly intellect, he has remained close to both Doudna and Zhang.
I told her that I wanted to include their reminiscences at the end of this book.
Until 2020, only five women, beginning with Marie Curie in 1911, had won a Nobel for chemistry, out of 184 honorees.
All of the scientists I write about in this book say that their main motivation is not money, or even glory, but the chance to unlock the mysteries of nature and use those discoveries to make the world a better place. I believe them. And I think that may be one of the most important legacies of the pandemic: reminding scientists of the nobility of their mission. So, too, might it imprint these values on a new generation of students who, as they contemplate their careers, may be more likely to pursue scientific research now that they have seen how exciting and important it can be.