Famed Biographer Walter Isaacson on Gene Editing, Science, and Good Books

Posted by Cybil on April 19, 2021

Walter Isaacson, it’s safe to say, is not afraid of tackling the really big topics. In 2011, he wrote about our ubiquitous computer culture in Steve Jobs, an exhaustive biography on the cofounder of Apple Inc. He followed that with The Innovators, an even more exhaustive investigation of the digital revolution itself. He’s plunged into theoretical physics with Einstein: The Life of a Genius, American history with Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, and the very nature of art and science with the biography Leonardo da Vinci.
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Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, is the author’s latest effort to plumb the depths of human knowledge by way of storytelling and biography. Jennifer Doudna is an American biochemist whose pioneering work in gene editing promises to be the next technological revolution of our age. Doudna and an all-star team of fellow scientists developed the relatively easy-to-use gene editing tool known as CRISPR.

Using this technology, scientists can potentially eliminate all hereditary diseases by adjusting DNA in human cells. The technology can also be used as a kind of space-age diagnostic tool, flagging potential illnesses years before they occur. More recently, CRISPR technology has been deployed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, Doudna was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with her colleague, French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier.

With The Code Breaker, veteran journalist Isaacson has delivered an engaging and readable book on some very serious science. Calling in via Zoom from his home in New Orleans, Isaacson spoke with Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about the world-shaking potential of gene editing, the secret to effective science writing, and the abiding joy of figuring out how stuff works.

Goodreads: In the book, you compare gene editing with other big inflection points in human history—like the Industrial Revolution or the internet. Now that you're at the end of this rather thorough investigation, what are your feelings about the ultimate significance of this technology? How big of a deal is this for our species?

Walter Isaacson: When I got my first iPhone, and then spent time talking to Steve Jobs about it, I thought, "Wow, this will transform everything. It will bring the internet into our pocket, it will be a communications device as well as a platform on which people can build apps we haven't even thought of, such as Uber and Airbnb."

But now that I see what the biotech revolution is doing, I realize gene editing will be much bigger. Instead of cutting and pasting pictures and documents, we'll be able to do some cutting and pasting of our own genetic makeup, and that of our children and that of our species. We’ll have devices in the home that will test all of our cancers and viruses and bacteria. That's a different order of magnitude from what was wrought by the digital revolution.

GR: The very concept of genetic editing is a scary thought for a lot of people. Are you optimistic about the ethical considerations of all this, in how this technology will be used in the future?

WI: When I first heard about how easy it might be, a few decades from now, to edit our children and our own genes, I recoiled. You know, it was Prometheus snatching fire from the gods. There is this idea that we just aren’t meant to play with nature this way. But the more I understood the technology, the more I had second and third and fourth thoughts.

There are no easy answers. I try to take the reader along with the scientists and the patients and the ethicists. I hope the reader and the characters in the book together get to go on a journey of discovery about using these technologies. It's a discussion that people need to start having—all of us, not just the scientists. 

Every now and then, I’ll be doing an event with Jennifer, and we’ll have people come up quietly afterwards. They’ll show a picture of their 12-year-old daughter and say, "She's got this genetic disease—can you help her?" Or it’s a grandson who is fighting cystic fibrosis. And so you end up asking the question, "Would it be moral to use these technologies?" But you’re also asking the question, "Would it be moral not to use these technologies?" And I think we have to wrestle with both questions.

GR: This is such an ambitious topic, and, like so many of your books, it’s a big one at around 500 pages. How long did it take to research and write?

WI: I worked on it for about six or seven years, early on just gathering details about the life sciences revolution. Then for about four years, I threw myself into it, hanging out at Jennifer Doudna’s lab in Berkeley, or at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, or in Berlin, where Emmanuelle Charpentier’s lab is. In the final year of reporting the book, things changed. I was invited to sit in on all the Zoom meetings and look in on the Slack channels, so I could watch the discoveries being made in real time. 

GR: Can you ballpark how many interviews were involved? 
WI: I think I interviewed about 70 people, and that includes people in labs where I was hanging out, where they were teaching me how to do various things like edit human genes.

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GR: Incredible. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the final year of all this, did that change the trajectory of the book?

WI: No, not really. It flowed very naturally because they were using these biotech tools to fight viruses, as well as other things, even before the pandemic hit. I got to hang out virtually as these teams did their work. It was a natural part of the narrative, as was the Nobel Prize that gets awarded right in the middle of the pandemic year. The goal of the book is to make people appreciate what research scientists do. I was able to open the book with them riding to the rescue of the world, carrying their pipettes high as they figure out ways to fight this coronavirus pandemic. I hope it becomes an inspiring journey of adventure.

GR: The book is surprisingly engaging on the storytelling level. It reads like a mystery at times—people chasing down clues and making connections. Did you use particular strategies to keep the readers engaged?

WI: I tried to let it fully unfold as a narrative in real time, step by step, so you can see the race to discover how to do edits in human cells. You can sense the competition as they proceed. And just like The Double Helix by James Watson or The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson, it’s a narrative tale involving colorful people. It’s more like storytelling than it is a science textbook.

GR: It feels like you’ve got some fiction writer’s tools in your toolbox.

WI: Well, my agent forbids me to try to write a novel. But I do think real-life adventures can be more thrilling than most novels.

GR: There’s a passage early in the book where you write about the critical importance, in science, of making connections between different specialty areas. Can you talk a little about that?

WI: All of the people I've written about—Leonardo da VinciBen FranklinEinsteinSteve JobsJennifer Doudna—they have a curiosity about all aspects of nature and of human endeavor. And that ability to see the patterns in nature, and how they ripple across various fields, is key to their creativity.

Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate example. He may be the one person in history who best tried to know everything possible about every subject that was knowable, from art to anatomy to math to medicine to zoology. And, of course, you see that in Jennifer Doudna as well, who's a great humanist as well as a wonderful biologist.

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GR: To switch gears a little, we’re all about book culture here at Goodreads and are always curious about those books that loom large for readers. Do you remember any book or books that you feel changed the direction of your life and work?

WI: Well, like Jennifer Doudna, my dad gave me The Double Helix by James Watson when I was in middle school, and it made me fascinated with science.

Another book I read, when I was about 12, was The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. He’s a novelist from down here in New Orleans and was a friend of the family. I never quite knew what he did for a living because he was always sitting around on this bayou north of Lake Pontchartrain. I asked his daughter, "What does your dad do?" And she said, "He's a writer." It was the first time I realized that you could be a writer, just like you could be an engineer, or fisherman, or a doctor.

I read his first book, and it seemed to have a lot of philosophical and moral messages in it. One day, I asked him about it. He said that two types of people come out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers. He said, "For heaven's sake, be a storyteller. The world's got too many preachers."

That sort of gave me a sense that the best way to explain complicated things, like science—or the best way to explain moral issues, like gene editing—is through the stories of the people who are doing it and thinking about it. Using that kind of narrative storytelling to convey messages is as old as the Bible. That was an important influence in my childhood. That led me on a path to being a storyteller.

GR: When you read for pleasure, do you have any favorite genres or authors or guilty pleasures?

WI: I like Dave Eggers, in terms of fiction. I like Michael Lewis, in terms of nonfiction. And certainly I'm often reading to try to find my next subject, which at the moment, I don't know what it will be.

GR: Is there anything else you'd like to discuss or highlight about the book, anything in particular for readers who might want to check out the book?

WI: Well, I’ve always thought that there's real joy in figuring out how something works. That joy is something that all my characters have had, from Leonardo da Vinci to Einstein to Jennifer Doudna. And I think that joy is particularly strong when that something is ourselves.


Walter Isaacson's The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race is available now in the U.S. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Trike (new)

Trike I thoroughly enjoyed The Code Breaker, which is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. It’s also the most up-to-date nonfiction book I’ve ever read, with additions included just a couple months before publication, so this about as cutting edge as you’ll find.

message 2: by Linda (new)

Linda Mcadams Interesting. Isaacson has a gift of bringing something to light that is a true invitation to reading. Whether it's a person or the science that's part of a person's endeavors to bring about something to reality or an opportunity to change a reality he knows how to put his research into interesting reading.

message 3: by Donato (new)

Donato Colangelo Nice interview. I have read so far both Jobs and Einstein biographies and found those books amazing. Actually, I kinda love them because they have helped shape my worldview in a way. I had no idea he was working on a book about CRISPR. The technology is interesting, I have already had the opportunity to read about it. However, I’d like to read Isaacson take on the subject! I’ll buy the book, for sure!

message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve Great book. Fine interview.

message 5: by PIETER (new)

PIETER I enjoyed the interview and loved the book, as I have all of Isaacson's other biographies. With information leading up to January, it seemed Isaacson felt the results of the pandemic were nearing a conclusion. As the virus has veered off again, I wonder if the point-of-view was premature or if I misread. I truly respect Isaacson's work as did Michio Kaku in an interview in which he complimented the biography of Einstein.

message 6: by VISHAL (new)

VISHAL B Nice interview.... would want to read the book definitely....

message 7: by Bibi (new)

Bibi Enjoyed the interview - insightful questions. Cannot wait to read this fascinating book by a fascinating author.

message 8: by J. Antonio (new)

J. Antonio Avalos Very interesting topic and nice interview. This is definitely a key topic in the upcoming years. I didn't know about the book. Now it's in my wishlist!

message 9: by Jos (new)

Jos dujardin Reading Isaacson is a pleasure, and in this book I was most endeared by the introduction by the author of an international scene of brilliant young scientists who worked together to achieve the amazing CRISPR technology. it gives me confidence that human kind can face a lot of challenges when we work together in science. Isaacson always goes back to the younger years of a remarkable person and identifies special characteristics.

message 10: by Ruth Wilson (new)

Ruth Wilson What a wonderful book, thank you for it.

message 11: by Ann (new)

Ann T I cannot wait to read the book. I am into moving to the future of medicine that is "not for all". :)

message 12: by Aramide (new)

Aramide Salako Having read this interview, now I want to read Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, The Innovators and The Codebreaker. I hope to read at least two of those this year. Steve Jobs is one of the best books I've read.

message 13: by Ren (new)

Ren Santos I didn’t even know that this book was coming out! After reading this interview I’ll definitely will have it a read.

message 14: by José Luis (new)

José Luis Thanks for the insightful interview. I read The Innovators and loved it. Einstein is on the line to be read, but it seems I will read The codebreaker first. Cheers,

message 15: by . (new)

. Groovy

message 16: by Barry (new)

Barry Nadel Hello Walter Isaacson,
My Mother was born an Isaacson. She was born in Lewiston, Maine. Her father was Peter A. Isaacson, attorney at law at Brann and Isaacson in Lewiston. Most Isaacsons are related. Where is your family from?
I am an author and plant geneticist.

message 17: by David (new)

David Celley I really like the Jobs biography, and I'm looking into Leonardo da Vinci next. It will likely be some time before I get interested in a work like The Code Breaker as I'm more oriented towards history.

message 18: by Sheryl (new)

Sheryl Walter, I contacted you years ago about your book on Benjamin Franklin and you told me to send the book to your New York office and you would sign it for me. Well life got in the way, as it often does, and I lost the address. Is that still an option? I’m sure you don’t remember talking to me, I’m from down to road from your home town.
Sheryl Bordelon
Ville Platte, LA

message 19: by Vien (new)

Vien Guenther What a wonderful interview. Walter Isaacson is a great author. I read Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. I will add The Code Breaker on my list to read.

message 20: by Guillermo (new)

Guillermo Maddalena Muchas gracias por la información!!

message 21: by Colleen Swain (new)

Colleen Swain I just read the interview. It was very good. I’ve read all of Isaacson’s books, except for this newest book, and enjoyed them all. I’ve learned so much from them.

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