Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Code Breaker

 Walter Isaccson has been enabled to study and write about some great thinkers.  Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs are ones that spring to mind.  With "The Code Breaker" (2021) he was able to have many conversations with his subject, Jennifer Doudna, but also many colleagues and even competitors.  While finishing up his material, the Covid 19 pandemic took over science.  In the midst of all that that, Jennifer along with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier was awarded the Nobel Prize, announced October 9, 2020. 

 Isaacson, as a respected science writer was given the opportunity to write about gene editing that he identified as the most important scientific breakthrough of current times and how it impacted the search for solutions to Covid-19 pandemic.

Isaacson had the story start on March 12, 2020 as she and her husband, Jamie Cafe decided to pull their son out of a robotics camp, a three hour drive away  tied to how his main character, Jennifer Doudna and her husband picked up their son from a robotics camp anticipating a lockdown which did occur the next day due to yet unnamed Covid-19 pandemic.  The previous narrative was a history of Jennifer, her collaborators, her competitors and the process of breaking the gene code.

Gene Editing was not an individual effort, but was driven by countless science workers from dozens of countries.   Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii where she came across "The Double Helix," the book describing the format of DNA by by Thomas Watson, Francis Crick and the uncredited Rosalind Franklin.  This helped inspire young Jennifer who went on to study at  Pomona College in California and then Harvard where she studied under Jack Szosak, a Nobel Prize winner who directed Jennifer to the role of RNA.  She worked with Thomas Cech (who was a Nobel Prize winner) at the University of Colorado where the two further developed the concept that RNA plays an important role with the better understood DNA.  From there she became an assistant professor at Yale and later at the University of California in Berkley where she continued to do experiments that deepened science's view of manipulating genes.

There were many other people involved in collaboration and competition.  In 2020 she was awarded her own Nobel Prize in association with the French scientist  Emmanuelle Charpentier as the two had worked together on the mysteries of the gene.

The Covid-19 pandemic re focused some of their efforts.  Berkely became the site of work on testing and identifying the virus and some efforts to establishing a vaccine.  They realized that research is too often tied up with legal concerns and broke down some of the obstacles.  One item that was remarked on was the reluctance of African Americans to take blood tests was due to experiences when they had been treated as guinea pigs.  The vaccines that have been developed were the first to be genetic works.

Isaacson, I would say more than with previous books was able to have extended conversations not only with Jennifer, but also many of her collaborators and even competitors, notably Feng Zhang.  Isaacson was allowed to split genes to see how easy it now is.  He also recalled talking with Steve Jobs after he was asked what was the best product and Jobs replied that it was assembling a team that could continually develop new products. 

There was a lot of discussion on bio ethics.  In effect scientists were making decisions that many thought were reserved for God.  The first concern was to avoid rare diseases, but then it became obvious that a wide range of human characteristics could be improved for the benefit of some, but that could have unexpected and perhaps undesirable side effects.  One side effect might be the lessening of diversity as everyone tries to emphasize the most ideal characteristics.  Darwin once pointed that nature could be very cruel.

It seems likely that our legal and moral views will evolve, but with our current resources there is still a lot of concern.  In my previous reading Yuval Noah Hariri seemed to accept that mankind has reached the point of playing God and had his own concerns.  An earlier blog.

The world is still adjusting to ever evolving science knowledge.  The computer has spread to effect all of humanity and now bio-chemistry promises even more advances for the human condition.

Links to blog posts on some of Walter Isaacson's other books.

On Albert Einstein:

On Leonardo da Vinci:

 On Steve Jobs:  (8th paragraph): 

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