Eleven years ago, I wrote a blog, “In pursuit of the perfect design,” which was in fact a book review. The book was simply entitled, Steve Jobs, and the author of this best-selling biography was Walter Isaacson (seen right, © Wikipedia). Besides this book on the iconic founder of Apple, he has also published acclaimed biographies on other influential figures, including Henry Kissinger (1992), Benjamin Franklin (2003), Albert Einstein (2007), and Leonardo da Vinci (2017). Last year saw Isaacson publish The Code Breaker, subtitled Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, his first biography of a woman.
Isaacson, who currently serves as distinguished professor of American history at Tulane University in New Orleans, has a fascinating life story of his own. As revealed by his gentle Southern accent, he is a native of Louisiana, who travelled north to Boston, to Harvard, where he earned a degree in history and literature, before attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He then chose a career in journalism, rising to editor of Time (1996), chairman of CNN (2001), and president of the Aspen Institute (2003-2018).
My wife gave me The Code Breaker for Christmas and I finished reading it yesterday – a real page-turner. It is a tour de force, chronicling the contributions of a cast of characters to the development of the gene-editing technology, CRISPR. Isaacson’s research is meticulous, with countless in-depth interviews, not only of Doudna but all the other protagonists, together with multiple scientific references. Despite – or perhaps because – he has no formal background or training in genetics, the author successfully captures the curiosity, innovation, personalities, and competition, and thus brings big science to life.
For me, the highlight was the collaboration between Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, who, together with their post-doctoral fellows, pioneered the use of CRISPR to enable scientists to cut, copy and replace sections of DNA. Their seminal paper, which focused on bacteria, was published in Science on 28 June 2012, and this triggered a scramble by scientists elsewhere to adapt the technique to human cells.
The penultimate section of the book deals with the impact of COVID, and explores the use of CRISPR to diagnose, develop vaccines, and treat this devastating virus. In August 2020, Isaacson facilitated the rapprochement between Charpentier (left) and Doudna (right) who had grown apart since their ground-breaking work a decade earlier. Fittingly, two months later, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the first time two women had been jointly honoured. This is a marvellous story captured by an extraordinarily talented biographer.