The Longest War
…has been waged between bacteria and viruses, probably for billions of years. Wars we are told, are foci of technological and cultural innovation, and this one is starting to do its part. Bacteriophages, the viruses that prey on bacteria, are ubiquitous in astonishing numbers – nearly a billion of them in every milliliter of sea water. It is a fairly recent realization by our species that bacteria have evolved impressive defense mechanisms, including one that promises to revolutionize human life.
This is the story told in Walter Isaacson’s latest biography: Code Breaker, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. The cover features a stern looking Jennifer Doudna, the heroine of his book and one of the pioneers of the CRISPR technology, which is revolutionizing gene editing. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the 2020 Nobel Prize for their work on the science.
Among the petty wars of humans are disputes over scientific priority and the consequent recognition, prizes, and, sometimes, enormous wealth to be won from patents. The resulting conflict in this case is a major focus of Isaacson’s book. The science gets relatively short shrift, which I found a shame.
Every good story of conflict needs a villain, and I was sad to see that my favorite online teacher, and President Biden’s new Cabinet level science advisor, Eric S. Lander, is cast in that role. Lander is founding director of the joint MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, and one of his protégé’s, Feng Zhang, was another key player in the race to turn CRISPR into an effective gene editing tool. Lander’s villainy, if villainy it were, culminated in a long review article in Cell which minimized the contributions of Doudna and Charpentier and while touting those of Zhang, his protégé, without mentioning his own intellectual and financial interest in the patent dispute.
Unsurprisingly, this drew some bitter denunciations from Doudna’s partisans. Here is a good one:
The most vibrant and viral responses came from one of Doudna’s high-octane colleagues at Berkeley, genetics professor Michael Eisen. “There is something mesmerizing about an evil genius at the height of their craft, and Eric Lander is an evil genius at the height of his craft,” he wrote and posted publicly a few days after the article appeared. He called the piece “at once so evil and yet so brilliant that I find it hard not to stand in awe even as I picture him cackling loudly in his Kendall Square lair, giant laser weapon behind him poised to destroy Berkeley if we don’t hand over our patents.”
Isaacson, Walter. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (p. 226). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
(to be continued)