I had on my must-read list a recent book by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg titled 'A Crack in Creation', a book about 'gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution'. Doudna is acknowledged as one of the leading scientists in the world regarding CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. Not only is she frequently quoted in scientific papers, she may also be familiar to the public through her interviews and appearances on television news and science shows. I was glad to get the opportunity to read this book.
The book is divided into two sections. In the first section, the authors give us the type of blow-by-blow first-person memoir about scientific discovery that makes for an exciting read. The remaining portion of the book considers the societal issues and what has been done to help alleviate a rush into biohacking our own evolution by changing the human germline. Although the book has two authors, it is written from only one perspective. I didn't find that confusing while reading the book, but I do find it makes it difficult while writing about it, as I am not sure if it is she said, he said, or they said. For the rest of my analysis, I will assume that I am primarily discussing the thoughts and ideas of Doudna.
One CRISPR issue not dealt with to any great extent in this book is the controversy over patent rights. Doudna comments only about "... a dispute over CRISPR patent rights, a disheartening twist to what had begun as collegial interactions and genuine shared excitement about the applications of the research." Perhaps she didn't want this to derail the important societal implications of this research. Perhaps there are still issues before the courts preventing such a discussion at the time of writing. With a simple internet search, a reader can find more information on this legal battle over who controls the intellectual property linked to CRISPR.
The one small issue I had with the book is that I personally did not like the way Doudna and Sternberg constantly refer to ‘letters’ rather than ‘bases’. I know they were writing for a general audience, but after they introduced us to the “familiar letters of DNA’: A, G, C and T” I would have preferred that they returned to calling them bases.
Prior to reading this book, I had just finished re-reading Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'. I wanted to learn what his take was on genetic engineering and reproductive technology as he saw it in 1931. He could not have imagined how close the possibilities were, considering he wrote his book 20 years prior to the publication of the model for DNA, 30 years before the widespread use of oral contraceptives for birth control, 60 years prior to the publication of the first draft of the human genome, and 70 years prior to CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. Huxley did play it safe, setting his dystopian future in approximately 2540 CE. Coincidentally, Doudna indicates that “rarely does the topic of germline gene editing come up in the media nowadays without the [Huxley] book being directly or indirectly referenced”.
I actually kept thinking of the movie GATTACA as I read about the advances in gene editing. The movie came out in the early days of the human genome project. Yet, it perfectly predicted the precise nature of the capability of CRISPR/Cas9. Near the beginning of the movie, as they were explaining the process, we hear the geneticist explain: "We want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn't need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result."
Since almost every time you check your Twitter stream now, you can find new papers and articles written about CRISPR, it is important to know the basics and the issues. A Crack in Creation provides this background knowledge. It is an informative read for all those interested in an ongoing scientific enquiry with the three important pillars of science, technology and societal issues. Science teachers, you will find this book useful for bringing you up-to-date with a cutting-edge introduction to current methods of accurate gene editing as well as the system in place for an open ethical debate on the issues associated with this powerful tool.
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