My WaPo review of a new book on gene editing

I’ve reviewed the new book by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and The Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution; my piece is online at today’s Washington Post and will be on the first page of the “Outlook” section in the Sunday paper. The review is free to access, and is called “New gene-editing tool could cure disease. Or customize kids. Or aid bioterrorism.

I won’t give excerpts here, as you should read it on the WaPo website, but I will say that the book is good and well worth reading; and I’ll add a few tidbits about the science.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system of gene editing, which hijacks bacterial immune-system genes as a tool to edit genes in other species, is immensely clever and has huge ramifications for biotechnology in many species, including ours. The most publicized use is, of course, to cure genetic diseases by replacing defective genes with normal ones in embryos or somatic tissue. It could, for instance, fix the mutant sickle-cell gene in those suffering from that horrible malady, or edit out the HIV virus lurking in the genomes of infected patients.

CRISPR/Cas9 also offers the possibility of customizing your child’s genome via “positive eugenics”, though I doubt that using the system to make your kids smarter or better looking is in the immediate offing. It’s also useful for changing the genes of crops (making them generate, for instance, their own insecticides) or domestic animals (it’s already been used to produce disease-resistant swine). And of course it’s the tool of choice to “resurrect” the wooly mammoth, but that’s not really happening the way we think. The plan for that involves replacing some Asian elephant genes with genes identified in the mammoth genome that are likely to produce longer hair and longer tusks. What we’ll really produce is an elephant that looks somewhat like a mammoth, but will be able to cross only with other such “hybrids” or with Asian elephants. We’re not even near the point where we can bring back extinct species with this technique.

Like the double-helix structure and the methods of DNA amplification and sequencing before it, there’s little doubt that the development of CRISPR/Cas9 as a gene-editing tool will garner a Nobel Prize. But who will get it? Several people could claim credit for the research, including Doudna, her French collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute, George Church at Harvard, and others. Each Nobel is limited to three recipients each, but you could get up to six if you award the prize for both Medicine & Physiology and Chemistry.

The Credit Wars are far more bitter with respect to the patents, as the Broad Institute is in court against the University of Californa at Berkeley (Doudna’s home), with both institutions claiming credit for developing CRISPR/Cas9. There are millions to be made from licensing the system out to biotech companies, though, as I say in my review, I consider it unethical for scientists and their universities to profit from taxpayer-funded research.

In the meantime, the Broad has won the preliminary patent rights, but Berkeley is appealing. And there’s an acrimonious fight between Eric Lander—head of the Broad, who wrote a self-serving article in Cell (“The heroes of CRISPR“) that basically gave his boy Zhang credit for it all and downplayed the contributions of Doudna and Charpentier—and Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley colleague of Doudna who ripped Lander apart on his own website’s post, “The Villiain of CRISPR.” (To give Eisen credit, he’s not simply defending Doudna because they’re colleagues, for he feels, as do I, that neither Zhang nor Doudna nor their academic homes should get patents on the CRISPR system.)  Having read a ton on CRISPR/Cas9 for my review—I figure that with the work I put in reading the book twice and doing background research, my fee works out to about $5 per hour—I side with Eisen on this one. Feng made a big contribution in getting CRISPR to work in human cells, and for that probably deserves a share of the Prize, but so, I think, do Doudna and Charpentier. Lander simply rewrote history in favor of his Institute, which, like Berkeley, could profit immensely from patents.

If you’re a fan of biology and genetics, do read Doudna and Sternberg’s book, for we’re going to hear a lot more about CRISPR in the future. You’ll want to learn how it works and something about its history. (It began simply with some curious investigators, having no thoughts about gene editing, wondering why there was a strange bit of palindromic DNA in the genomes of some bacteria.) A Crack in Creation (good title!) is excellent on this, and very accessible. Where it falls down is in its discussion of the ethics of gene editing (see my review) and in largely ignoring the battle for credit and patents swirling about CRISPR. My criticisms of these two points are largely quibbles, but a full recounting of the CRISPR story would show that scientists are human, and sometimes eager for credit and wealth.


  1. Joseph Stans
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Alas, I do not suppose there is any way to use CRISPER to make Trump human….? Or at least a useful farm animal?

    • BobTerrace
      Posted June 30, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      I suggest throwing him away and starting fresh.

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I got this book on my Kindle a week or so ago but I have not started reading it yet.

  3. Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks. I may pick it up. I use CRISPR in my work on TCR editing. Very powerful stuff.

  4. Simon Hayward
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Jerry that link took me to a paywall. Glad you liked the book, was on my list to read so a positive review bumps it up a place or two.

    • Sevendy
      Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Firefox’s “reader view” mode easily penetrates the Post’s (and most other newspapers’) paywall.

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        So it does, thanks a lot

  5. TPO
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Is your blog editing software set to change all instances of “Berkeley” to “Stanford”?

    At least the text in the WaPo is correct.

  6. Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    That was a well written review, and I especially appreciate the part at the end about the public, i.e. the tax payer, paying twice and the problems with patents. If anything, why not have companies who want to use the invention pay the government (i.e. the tax payers) back?

    You note that it is “not often in science writing that the actual discoverer puts pen to paper” and I wonder whether this is, at least in part, motivated by the Credit Wars, too.

  7. rickflick
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    “…scientists are human, and sometimes eager for credit and wealth.”

    This is only reasonable. Scientists should not be placed on a pedestal, but they deserve much respect in terms of the scientific work they do. Some however will argue from this that scientists are avaricious demons and use that to discount whatever science doesn’t match their ideology. I guess such behavior is only human too.

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    A Google search verifies my strong suspicion that I am not the first to think of the phrase “designer genes”.

  9. Posted June 30, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    “though I doubt that using the system to make your kids smarter or better looking is in the immediate offing”

    I would put that more strongly. Having the CRISPR-Cas9 system is like having a word processor and some extremely complex and esoteric text on your computer. In principle, you could “improve” the text, but first you need a profound understanding of its subject matter. We are, I think, very far from a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of how genes interact during development to be thinking (or worried) about “designer babies”.

  10. merilee
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink


  11. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    …pronounced like the useless compartment in your fridge.

    Meaning no disrespect, I got a chuckle out of this given Jerry’s proclivity for green-free meals.

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    CRISPR has been getting a lot of attention lately. I’ll have to read this!

  13. bric
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    The New Yorker had an amusing story by T C Boyle of the way this might go

  14. Posted June 30, 2017 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m not averse to such productive research, but if it was government funded the government should be able to garnish some of the profits in addition to normal taxation.


  15. Jim batterson
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I bought the book based on Matthew cobbs very nice review of it in the current new york review of books. It is a bit of a tough slog for an old aerospace engineer who lacks formal background in chemistry and biology, but well worth the effort. Thanks to jac for bringing crispr to our attention a month or so ago in eit. Looking forward to reading his review.

  16. Tom
    Posted July 1, 2017 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    I know nothing of Crispr or editing but “mad scientists” is certain to be the angle the popular press will take when they actually notice what is going on.
    And which in the media will be the victor in the race to use “Frankenstein” in a Crispr headline?

  17. Barney
    Posted July 1, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Prof – an interesting review (and follow-up post here), that makes me think I really should read the book, because of how important the area will be.

  18. Diane G.
    Posted July 2, 2017 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Great review! I should think it would sell a lot of books. 🙂

  19. Andrea Kenner
    Posted July 2, 2017 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    PCCE, I think you were the one who posted a link to this GREAT video a couple of months ago…

    You turned me on to A Capella Science with that post!

  20. Posted July 4, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the reviews – these are definitely topics I know nothing much about and should learn more.

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