Scientist Jennifer Doudna Is Leading the Next Technological Revolution

Scientist Jennifer Doudna Is Leading the Next Technological Revolution
Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Prize recipient for her work on the gene-editing tool CRISPR, and the “life sciences revolution” are the dual subjects of Walter Isaacson’s latest biography. (Nick Otto for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
A new book from Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson offers an incisive portrait of the gene editing field that is changing modern medicine

Since last March, the first floor of Jennifer Doudna’s Innovative Genomic Institute in Berkeley has become a Covid-19 testing facility processing thousands of samples each day. Doudna is a newly minted Nobel Prize recipient—she and her French collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier won the honor “for the development of a method for genome editing” known as CRISPR in 2020—and an old hand at unraveling the secrets of RNA, the genetic material that guides the novel coronavirus. So when the pandemic hit, the IGI, which aims to apply genomic engineering for public good, turned its attention to stopping the virus. Their scientists, in lightning-quick collaboration with other researchers, are developing CRISPR-powered at-home tests and investigating how to harness CRISPR for antiviral treatments.

Scientists have made leaps and bounds in understanding genetic material like DNA and RNA since the 1953 discovery of the double helix. Now, these advances are propelling the global fight against the coronavirus and making plain the relevance of biotech to our lives, not just in the future but right now. Lab-made messenger RNA, after all, is generating antibodies in the arms of 90 million Americans and counting.

In 2012, 14 months after they began collaborating, Doudna and Charpentier published trailblazing research: Their labs had worked out how to harness bacteria’s innate “immune systems” to make precise cuts to genetic material, a user-friendly technique with “considerable potential for gene targeting and genome editing applications,” they wrote.

Several years after her research made headlines but before the birth of the world’s first genetically edited babies in China, Doudna spoke at an event hosted by the Aspen Institute, where biographer Walter Isaacson served as CEO. Isaacson has chronicled the lives and transformative ideas of Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, and at the time, he says, “I was looking for a way to do what I think is the next great revolution for the next 50 years, which is biotech.” Doudna’s journey, he concluded, was interwoven, much like the strands of the DNA double helix, with these biochemical discoveries and debates.

Doudna and the dawning age of the genome share central billing in Isaacson’s newest book, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. Like his previous works, it’s a tale of transformative ideas, but this time, the revolution is playing out in real-time, and the innovative thinker at its heart is a woman.

To make sense of the intricacies of gene editing, Isaacson starts with some foundational discoveries: how the monk Gregor Mendel’s pea plant breeding revealed heritable traits passed between generations and the academic race to puzzle out the structure of DNA. He guides readers from inhospitable salt ponds in Spain to a yogurt company lab to a Berkeley café where Doudna conferred with a colleague as scientists piece together how bacteria detect and then destroy viral invaders. Then he details how this basic science discovery led to leapfrog advances in genetic engineering, and the medical potential and ethical perils that resulted.

“I wanted to show that discovery is a team sport, and it’s also driven by very persistent, insightful people [like Doudna],” Isaacson says. “So there’s a colorful cast of characters in the book.” Vivid portraits of other scientists—full professors as well as the less-recognized postgrads whose experiments are the day-to-day backbones of labs—are sprinkled throughout the book. We meet Blake Wiedenheft, the outdoorsy Montanan researcher in Doudna’s lab who helps figure out the structure of key enzymes; Josiah Zayner, the piercing-studded biohacker who livestreams genetic experiments in which he’s his own test subject; and Feng Zhang, the affable molecular biologist who is Doudna’s scientific rival. (The Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, paid extra to get Zhang’s patent application for CRISPR’s use in human cells fast-tracked, beating out Doudna and Charpentier and launching an ongoing patent war that Isaacson outlines.)

“They’re all wonderful characters, and they all deserve their own biographies, but I wanted to weave it into a narrative of discovery and sort of a detective tale,” Isaacson says.

As the main character, Doudna’s personal life and professional trajectory serve as an entry point into larger questions about science. “Her life story seemed to tie together all of the strands that I wanted to hit,” says Isaacson. Her divorce gets linked to her single-minded dedication to her research; her heated patent fight expands into a reflection on whose scientific contributions get remembered and written out of history; and her nightmare about Hitler asking her to explain how CRISPR works launches a section of the book dedicated to the ethical quandaries gene editing raises. In the wake of this dream, Doudna began to organize policy discussions about what restraints scientists should place on gene-editing experiments in humans.