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Publisher's Summary

The best-selling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies.

When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. She put it aside, thinking it was one of those detective tales she loved. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn’t become scientists, she decided she would. 

Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book’s author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned ​a curiosity ​of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions. The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. 

The past half century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet. Now we are entering a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code. Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! And what about preventing depression? Hmmm.... Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids? 

After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.

©2021 Walter Isaacson. All rights reserved. (P)2021 Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

What listeners say about The Code Breaker

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Yet Another Thought-Provoking Effort from Isaacson!

Great performance and another interesting effort from Isaacson. Fascinating crash course in the history of bio-engineering and outline of big ethical dilemmas we face as a society.

3 people found this helpful

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Not Historical or Balanced

When discussing the reasons why women’s scientific articles appear to be cited less frequently than those written by men, Walter Isaacson quotes from a study that showed that women tend to be more realistic and less boastful than men in assessing the importance of their work. Hence, readers may be less excited and less inclined to give the article great significance.

That point is lost on neither Isaacson, or Jennifer Doudna, his subject. The importance of CRISPR gene editing, and Jennifer Doudna as one of its pioneers, is greatly overstated in this book. Also, it is evident that Isaacson considers himself to be an historian of science, but this book would not be approved by real historians of science. Paul Morange, perhaps the leading historian of the science of biochemistry, wrote an excellent article critiquing a paper about the “Heroes of CRISPR” that Isaacson also cites in this book. But many of the criticisms of Morange could also be directed towards Isaacson. The most telling criticism is that historians of science should not rely on interviews of the participants. This, of course, is the opposite of the approach of journalists, for whom personal interviews are the central source of information. Interviews may give news magazine articles a certain punch, but they are not useful for real history of science.

Also, Isaacson is too eager a proponent of what has been called a “craze” for CRISPR. The discoverers of CRISPR did not invent gene editing. It is believed to be an easier and more precise technology than other gene editing tools, but even that is being disputed. And, editing human genes is of no use if the new genes cannot be delivered to the nucleus of the cell, and then to the right place on the DNA. CRISPR itself does not assist in solving those monumental tasks. When someone has found out how to deliver edited genes to target cells or tissues, and have the genes expressed reliably, that will be a genuine landmark in biology and medicine.

Finally, Isaacson is too eager to promote Doudna as the foremost hero of CRISPR. No doubt she is an outstanding scientist, but scores of outstanding scientists all contributed small but important pieces of knowledge to the overall discovery. The individual stories of many of the scientists, including Doudna, are far from heroic. Yes, she and the others were initially motivated by bona fide scientific curiosity, but the lust for money, power and fame add a tawdry aspect to the “race” to be the first to make advances – a race that one scientist may win by only a few weeks over several others, hardly the distinction of a truly exceptional innovation. It is hard to consider Doudna a hero when she is also one of the largest recipients of funding by the US military, which claims it is interested in defences against weaponized CRISPR generated microorganisms, but which obviously has an equal interest in weaponizing CRISPR itself. (The fact that Doudna, along with Charpentier, were anointed by the Nobel committee is no sure sign that they two were actually exceptional in CRISPR development. Given that the rules say only three can win, the two are likely as deserving recipients as most of the other contenders, but I do not believe they are clearly more deserving as many other contenders).

All in all, this is more a hagiography of Doudna (and CRISPR) than history. If some is interested in the science and the history of the science, go on line (and be discerning). There are many, much better, resources.

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Hagiography or biography ?

The book is interesting but so flawed towards Doudna that it is almost embarrassing for the intellectual independence of M Isaacson. It sounds like a paid job. Unfortunately biased.

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Enjoyable and Informative

Very well researched and delivered, with a good balance of the science and the human side of research.

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one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater

No...the book does not promote genetic engineering much!
It segues into the Corona virus vaccines nicely and seems to end in a Kumbay-ya, someone's singing my Lord moment, where it is 2021 and the year of the plague and RNA has answered the call.
Very fascinating and current.

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I've never learned so much in such a short time

Just a great book to explain things to a neophyte like myself on complex subject.

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Science!

Very engaging story of the path to gene editing. the narrator was good for the most part. A little flat at times. I learned a lot from this book and would recommend it to anyone who wanted to learn more about RNA, vaccines or the role of science going forward.

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Wonderful Working Women

Powerful story about STEM and the great women doing ground breaking research and saving the world at the same time.

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  • Johan
  • 2021-03-14

Except for the author, this book is good!

Good book. Goes deep.
But remember it’s a biography! This book has a lot of science, and it’s got goodies if you’re curious about the technology. Even if you are interested in the history or the people, this book is a good book.
But the author has such a weird relationship with venture capitalists and an idea about “competitive competition” that he contradicts himself on so many occasions. He’s swaying a whole lot around the subject of “competitiveness”. The author describes open collaboration as the key to success in this case, but in the next part he’s basically telling the reader that patents and money is what makes the world go round. I’m not saying he’s wrong, but since this is a Biography I would like to know which one it is from HER standpoint.
I’m sorry Walter, but your own view on anything here is just slag polluting the process. Tell us what actually was important historically, not what you using your own personal frame of reference perceive to be important.
So which one was it? Was it her cut throat competitiveness or her collaborative collegial traits that made this breakthrough possible?

52 people found this helpful

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  • David
  • 2021-03-16

Extraordinary and flawed

Code Breaker is an extraordinary professional biography of Dr. Jennifer Doudna, a history of the field of gene editing, and interwoven stories of many other scientists, teams, and academic labs globally. Code Breaker is best when Walter Isaacson explores these stories and allows the history to lead.

I rated Code Breaker 4-stars overall because it is at its worst when Walter Isaacson seems to be trying to beatify Dr. Doudna. These are sections of the book I found most annoying and possibly flawed. I stuck with it through every word but this preachiness left me with a negative reaction at the end.

I wanted to meet Leonardo and Steve Jobs when I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biographies of them, as well as others in his book The Innovators. But by the end of Code Breaker I’m excited about Dr. Doudna’s accomplishments but I don’t want to meet her in person. This is a frustrating flaw in an otherwise extraordinary biography.

24 people found this helpful

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  • A User
  • 2021-03-13

Great book. Get one and listen.

This book is both long and short, long because it is 16 hours, short because it tells stories and magicks time away. I have enjoyed 3 CRISPR-related books (by Nessa Carey, Jennifer Doudna, and Kevin Davies) and have decent background knowledge, and still, this new book excites me.

17 people found this helpful

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  • BarryM
  • 2021-03-22

Way too Judgemental

Three author too often inserted his opinions, and was way too judgemental for my tastes.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Mo
  • 2021-03-13

Couldn't be much better

As always, Walter Isaacson has written a brilliant book. Through the maze of science, he tells a very human story of one of the most significant breakthroughs in modern history. I'm 71 and can only imagine the positive impact of gene editing on my children and grandchildren. Thank you, Jennifer Doudna, you and your predecessors have laid the foundation for the curing of disease and the possible uplifting of humanity. As Walter says, the discovery of the atom, byte, and now CRISPR cas9 are the three most important scientific advances in the last 100 years. Walter, you're writing is inspiring and makes this story understandable. Thank you. Mo Siegel

7 people found this helpful

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  • Dr. Chris P. Hafner
  • 2021-03-21

An Exciting, Lucid, & Articulate Account of CRISPR, Gene-editing

An Exciting, Lucid, & Articulate Account of CRISPR, Gene-editing & the drivers behind the scientific leap forward brought to us by the joining of brilliant minds against viruses, including COVID19. As someone who has earned two doctorates, an MPH, worked at NIH & served as a scientific reviewer for grants, PAs/FOAs, peer-reviewed publications, and translated Scientific evidence into policy, I can relate to the academic, funding, publishing & policy sides of the competitive science community. This books fills an interesting & important gap for anyone who has an interest in the evolution of our species & the elimination of disease, disability & premature death.
~Dr. Chris P Hafner, PhD, ND, MPH, LAc

6 people found this helpful

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  • David S.
  • 2021-03-15

Another great biography.

Once again Walter Isaacson delivers an engaging biography while explaining a subject in depth and with attention to the many contributions of the constellation of scientists working with and sometimes against his subject. CRISPR Cas9 is the subject of the book almost as much as Jennifer Doudna herself. The author does not shy away from offering his own opinions on the positions taken in the ongoing patent battle between Doudna and Berkeley Univ on the one hand and Eric Lander and The Broad Institute on the other. He also takes on directly the conflict between the opportunity for curing disease presented by CRISPR and the potential threat to society from unfair advantages that could be obtained if only a rich few can enhance their children through germline editing. In this regard I think Sapiens and other books by Yuval Noah Harari make good companions to The Code Breaker. Highly recommended.

6 people found this helpful

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  • Karen L Gregory
  • 2021-03-20

Fascinating book

At first it was very technical & a little difficult to follow, but I continued on & am very glad I did. It picked up & held me enthralled to the very end. Even tho the book is read by a woman, occasionally I can hear Isaacson’s voice behind the words. I picked up this book after hearing him present in on ‘Morning Joe’ where he is a frequent commentator. I recall earlier in the year he briefly had mentioned being in a vaccine test group. Now all the things he said that day make sense. I now understand how we got our COVID vaccines in record time. In fact this book explains that it was a process over 40 years in the making. He describes & discusses the miraculous opportunities & morality decisions to be made by the development of CRISPR (something I never heard of prior to this book) by Jennifer Doudna & Charpentier. They are well deserving of their Nobel Prize for the gift they have brought the human race. Thank you Walter Isaacson for this book.

5 people found this helpful

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  • K. Boone
  • 2021-04-03

Fascinating , exciting story

Once again, Walter Isaacson slams a home run with his remarkable telling of Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna’s story— her life, her lab, her work. Someone suggests this is like a thriller , and in fact, as scientists race to address viruses such as Covid 19, it IS. I certainly wasn’t as acutely aware of the competition that exists across labs in the world, but also find myself heartened to appreciate new found collaborations that will accelerate the pace of discovery — to the benefit, we hope, of all humankind. This is a smart, fascinating and comprehensive look at the world of Crispr. And while I still would never pass a chem course, I believe everyone should read to appreciate the world of biotech and how our scientists will define much of our future.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Jane A. Burman
  • 2021-03-23

What a wonderful book!

At first I thought this book might be boring. Boy, was I wrong. It is an amazing story of how pure scientific research can be applied to solve current problems. I loved this book

4 people found this helpful