by James Wallace Harris, 8/18/21
I’ve been learning about the gene editing tool CRISPR for years in bits and pieces. From reading news and magazines articles I had a vague idea that science had made a tremendous breakthrough, one akin to science fiction imagined in GATTACA and Brave New World. CRISPR/Cas9 will allow us to heal people with inheritable genetic diseases or cure people with conditions caused by defective genes, but more than that, it will allow us to program our own evolutionary developments, and change our reproductive germlines.
I don’t want to try and summarize CRISPR/Cas9 to you in detail because I’m recommending your read The Code Breakers by Walter Isaacson or watching Human Nature. But if you want a quick overview, here’s the Wikipedia entry.
My focus is to compare learning from a book versus a documentary. I’ve already acquired what I would consider rumors about CRISPR via Flipboard and The New York Times. Those are casual, everyday ways to absorb tidbits of information. But what’s the next level up? That depends on the time you’re willing to spend, and the amount of details you wish to digest.
Human Nature (2019) is a 1 hour and 35 minute documentary that’s currently available to Netflix or PBS Documentaries on Amazon subscribers, or to rent or buy from Amazon and other video sources. It’s a superior documentary that quickly covers the background of CRISPR with impressive infographic and animations, while interviewing the major scientists, then moving into the thorny ethical issues of gene editing, before finally wrapping things up by speculating about the future. After watching Human Nature you’ll have a good sense of what CRISPR can do and its science fictional impact on society. The documentary claims CRISPR will change the world more than the internet.
On the other hand, if you want go beyond the Gosh-Wow level, you could read Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breakers. It’s 16 hours and 4 minutes on audio, or 552 pages of reading. The book tells the same story as the documentary but with far more detail. The framing of the book is a semi-biography of Jennifer Doudna, who shared the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2020. Walter Isaacson is noted for his biographies (Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin), and The Code Breakers is sort of a biography of Doudna, at least when it comes to her scientific career.
But The Code Breakers is much more. It’s a history of a technology that has emerged in our lifetime, and a chronicle how scientists work to discover and apply that new technology. We learn about publishing papers, going to conferences, building labs, forming startup companies, and competing for the Nobel Prize. If you loved books like The Double Helix by James Watson, The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, or The Inflationary Universe by Alan Guth, then you should love this one too. I especially admired how Isaacson’s interviewed the various scientists competing for fame and glory, because he knew that they knew he was giving Doudna the scientific fame over them. Recognizing who came first in a discovery is a challenging piece of detective work that Isaacson pulls off with the skill of a master lawyer working the jury.
What also impressed me was how Isaacson told this complex story. I can’t imagine amassing so much information and then weaving it together into a compelling narrative. I’d love to see a documentary about how Isaacson researches and writes his books.
The Code Breakers will take you much further than the Human Nature regarding how genetic editing history unfolded, but the documentary has its own virtues, especially in compelling visuals. However, I wanted to go even further into learning how CRISPR works. Neither the book nor the documentary gave me the step-by-step concepts of what the lab work was like. Because CRISPR is so damn interesting, I went searching for even more information on YouTube. Both the book and film claims using CRISPR is easy, and that anyone can order educational kits to use the technology. I just couldn’t visualize that.
This short clip gave me more of what I wanted, but it’s still not enough, but I’m going to continue looking for more videos like this one. However, I also found this video about one of the CRISPR kits.
The trouble with wanting to understand even more is I run into the limits of my understanding. I found the 2012 article from Science that’s at the heart of the book. I can read it, and even spot ideas covered in the book and documentary, but 95% lies behind an event horizon of jargon I can’t penetrate. Just look at this one paragraph:
I love popular science books and magazines, but I have to take the working of real science on faith. I don’t like that. I’m hoping to find other books and documentaries that will help me in my quest to visualize how scientists do their work in a step-by-step process. Throughout the book Isaacson wrote about the experiments involved in discovering CRISPR, but I have no mental picture of what they were like.
For example, x-ray crystallography was often mentioned as a vital skill in this lab work. Seeing this video helps me visualize more of the narrative. What I would love is a Ken Burns type documentary, a 10-part series that visually illustrated The Code Breakers.
CRISPR is another example of the positive potential for our future, and another example that validates science. Sure, CRISPR offers all the potential evils of H-Bombs, but it also proves we have great abilities to solve incredibly complex problems.
I feel lucky to have experienced digital revolution, and I’d love to live long enough watch the gene editing revolution unfold. By the time the 2040s and 2050s roll around, society will be transformed again. But then, there will be other transformation happening in the same time frame. Our efforts to slow climate or our failure to do so will reveal another massive transformation. Talk about Future Shock…