The Crispr story is made for the movies. It features a nail-biting race, more than its fair share of renegades, the highest prize in chemistry, a gigantic battle over patents, designer babies and acres of ethical quicksand. It presents a challenge to a biographer, however, who has to pick one character from a cast of many to carry that story. Isaacson chose Doudna, and you can understand why. Having helped to elucidate the basic science of Crispr, she remains implicated in its clinical applications and in the ethical debate it stimulated – unlike Charpentier, who has said that she doesn’t want to be defined by Crispr and is now pursuing other science questions. Doudna is the thread that holds the story together.
Isaacson’s style of biography – evident in his books on Einstein and Franklin and Leonardo – can be dubbed “qualified hagiography”. He’s trying to hit a balance between the kind of Whig history that makes complex science accessible, and something that will withstand academic inspection. His heroes’ flaws are explored, but their heroism is upheld. Pick at it how you want, it makes for a rattlingly good story.
Recounting complex scientific tales as if he were a storyteller around a fire, Isaacson helps the reader with signposts — “remember this tiny molecule” — and playful translations. Ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which Doudna devoted her life to studying, becomes a “middle manager” for its role in translating DNA into proteins.
This strange, hybrid book tells this story. Isaacson has previously written biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, and I was expecting this to be a biography of Doudna. It is, in part, but it is also a history of DNA and CRISPR research, a story about women in science, a digression on the significance of yoghurt, a long moral essay and an account that feels interminable of laboratory politics.