Behind the scenes of the CRISPR story


Walter Isaacson, one of America’s foremost biographers, recently told me that he sees three fundamental units as the cornerstones of 20th-century innovation: the bit, the atom, and the gene. Having written about Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein—embodiments of the first two—in previous works, in his latest book, The Code Breaker, reviewed in this issue of Science (see page 1213), Isaacson’s focus turns to the gene. His story centers on the life of biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who, together with Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their pioneering work on the gene editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9. The book is an extraordinarily detailed and revealing account of scientific progress and competition that grants readers behind-the-scenes access to the scientific process, which the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us remains opaque to the wider public. It also provides lessons in science communication that go beyond the story itself.

Doudna granted Isaacson numerous interviews for the book, as well as total access to her lab meetings and to her team’s Slack channel. In contrast to many of his previous biographies, which relied heavily on archival documents and focused on individuals whose lives and legacies were fully realized at the time of writing, this allowed Isaacson to “see history being made.” This also meant that Doudna would be around to read the finished product. Yet he reports that “she never asked for any control of the book, nor for the right to change anything.”

This struck me as a bold and important decision. Society is starved for compelling stories about scientists, and by allowing Isaacson to study her life closely, Doudna opened the door for a much-needed narrative about the mechanisms of modern science.

When I asked her about the decision to allow Isaacson full access to her work, Doudna told me she was struck by his desire to fully comprehend how CRISPR came to be and by his efforts to understand the broader biomedical research landscape in which it arose. “I was impressed that he wanted to learn all about the way experimental science is conducted as well as about the personalities involved in the story of CRISPR. Walter is a great reporter and storyteller,” she explained. “I wanted him to be able to write this story with as much first-hand knowledge as possible.” I suspect many folks wouldn’t have the courage to do this, but I hope others will follow her lead so that the public can gain a better appreciation for the excitement of scientific discovery and the self-correcting nature of science.

The Code Breaker is a story about discovery, collaboration, and competition. Doudna’s collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier and her competitor biochemist Feng Zhang gave Isaacson extensive interviews, as did other luminaries of science, including geneticists Eric Lander and George Church. This allowed Isaacson to document the arguments that lead researchers to change their hypotheses, the competition they engage in for credit and patents, and the conferences where—in nonpandemic times—ideas are exchanged and collaborations are often formed.

The book also includes a great deal of detail about scientific publishing. Isaacson illustrates how scientists argue over reviewers and about what format their research manuscripts should take. He describes how publications can be expedited when there is competition and manages to infuse drama into the experience of uploading a submission to a journal website. Doudna and Charpentier’s 2012 Science paper, which described the CRISPR-Cas9 system and suggested that it might be used for gene editing, even gets its own chapter.

I asked Isaacson if he had known these details about scientific publishing before he embarked on this project and if he had learned anything along the way. Despite having written about scientists in the past, he told me he knew relatively little about the drama and importance of scientific publishing, and that he found it inspiring: “I learned that the rigor and honesty of the review process are so crucial to the progress of science. In an era that has become loose with facts and truth—and skeptical about science—it’s useful to have bulwarks that believe that evidence matters and intellectual honesty is our true north compass point.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment and hope that we will continue to see more inspiring scientific stories made accessible in this way.

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