A crack in creation: gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg is a non-fiction book that explains CRISPR cas-9 and its potential societal uses as well as implications. I first learned about this book after catching a tv broadcast with an extended interview with Doudna. Having heard about CRISPR in passing, the interview intrigued me and her succinct, easy-to-understand descriptions made me want to read her book which was being released soon.
While a non-fiction science book about genetics, the overall tone reads more like a narrative than dry facts. Since her career dovetails well with the emergence of gene editing and her role in its popularity, she and her co-author tell the story from her point of view, adding in additional information about what others were doing around the world for the same endeavor, as appropriate. The narration certainly makes it a much more readable book, despite its technical scientific topic. By presenting the science within a story, the content is approachable.
Also, briefly, the writing style is simple and straight-forward, making what could be an otherwise complicated topic easier to understand. The authors employ a wide variety of smilies, as well, in order to ensure that the reader comprehends the science. The clearly wanted everyday people, regardless of their familiarity with science, to read and discuss their book and the potentials and pitfalls of gene editing.
So, what is gene editing? It is the new method to make changes to anyone or any living things’ genetic code that controls traits. Previously, gene splicing (using the genetic code from one living creature to change another’s) was the leading technology. Gene editing can use one’s own genetic code with greater accuracy, ease, and less cost. Due to this, the field of scientists testing CRISPR cas-9 for gene editing has exploded in the past few years alone, and along with it comes amazing potential and worrying detriment depending how this technology is used.
The book itself is divided into two part: the tool and the task. The first part covers all of the technical science behind CRISPR cas-9 and gene editing. It is also the main story, covering Doudna’s career and the rise of gene editing. While it is dense at times, it is well written and not too overwhelming although it does have some jargon since it is difficult to get away from it entirely; but again, the authors explain the terms and procedures well.
The second part enumerates the potential benefits and pitfalls in four chapters that cover uses in food supply (both plants and livestock), medical treatments and elimination of certain conditions, risks and ethics, and finally the concern about abuse of the technology and unknown damage to society and humanity as a whole. The last two chapters begin to tease out a very important distinction when talking about gene editing: somatic versus germline editing. Basically, one of the main debates is where to edit just one person’s genes, such as with a cancer treatment, or to edit germ cells which is inheritable by future generations so that, say, everyone born with the edited gene already never gets that cancer. While gene editing is precise and very accurate, it is still an unknown as to what may happen by changing a gene for future generations or even introducing a gene to mosquitoes that would make them unable to reproduce and kill them off as a species so that they could no longer infect anyone with diseases. Another use could be creating “designer babies” with the exact traits and gender desired by the parents, or at least correcting particular genes to prevent certain conditions before they could develop. Gene editing is very powerful and could do great good or harm, depending on how it is used.
The authors intend this book to spark discussion among society, since they believe if and how gene editing with CRISPR cas-9 is used should be a collective decision. Whether or not that actually happens as more and more scientist explore the possibilities and companies see the money-making potential in this technology is another question.
Recommended?: Yes! I am certain that as testing continues, the general public will be told more and more about this incredible technology. This book is an excellent introduction to it and lays out a lot of information and questions to consider. If nothing else, it is very good food for thought. I wasn’t sure where I stood exactly and even after reading this book, I am still not sure. More to ponder as the technology continues to develop.