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Cover of The Code Breaker

To say that scientists now understand life’s “code” is a stretch. So, from the very title of Walter Isaacson’s latest biography, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, he’s off to a rocky start. And that isn’t the only conceptual gap papered over by this beautifully built behemoth. To suggest that Doudna is a “code breaker” is to compare her to, say, the British code breakers of World War II who cracked the notorious German Enigma code. But when it comes to DNA, our code breaking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: if the Allies had had the same level of expertise in actual cryptology that scientists now have with DNA, they might well have lost World War II.

The Code Breaker contains 481 pages of Oscar-level cinematic prose, providing a whistle-stop tour of how Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a large supporting cast discovered and developed the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR—an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. These repeating DNA features... see more