My older sister is excellent at picking out books. So in March, when she handed me the 2020 book Editing Humanity: The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing by Kevin Davies, I decided to give it a try. I really enjoyed this book, although it took me nearly two months to read.
Davies’ book is split up into four parts, covering everything from the basics of genetic engineering, CRISPR, to controversies around the technology and its future. The narrative aspect of this nonfiction book centers around the He Jiankui controversy of 2018, which many consider a negative turning point in the world of gene editing.
Before delving into the nature of this event, Davies covers pre-CRISPR technology with a focus on curing diseases such as sickle cell. He then discusses the invention of CRISPR, an enzyme-based tool initially found in the immune systems of bacteria. Using this enzyme, scientists are able to alter mammalian cells more easily than ever before.
These discoveries, however, morph into a fierce patent dispute, in both America and Europe. The founding scientists, Jennifer Doudna, Emanuelle Charpentier, and Feng Zhang find themselves fighting for the right to claim CRISPR as their own discovery amongst evolving American patent laws.
Davies then reaches the climax of CRISPR-related events so far: Jiankui’s lab’s birth of two gene-edited baby girls in China. Shrouded in secrecy and complicated by international affairs, Davies delves into the ethics and nature of this major scientific upset before turning to the future and discussing the implications of gene editing in our ever-changing world.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. Davies does an excellent job weaving a suspenseful and engaging narrative throughout despite the complex scientific nature of the topic. He explains the referenced terminology and genetic principles skillfully, with enough detail that the average reader would understand, but not so much that they get bogged down along the way. However, I do think that coming into this book, some background biology knowledge is needed, especially surrounding DNA and RNA.
One thing that frustrates me about this book is its very slow pace. I feel as though Davies sometimes includes details, references, and events that were not clearly relevant to the point he was trying to make. These additional examples and anecdotes make the already near four-hundred-page book even denser and take away some of its page-turning appeal.
Despite this issue, I would still recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand gene editing and its place in the modern world. With just a ninth-grade Biology understanding of DNA, this is an accessible read, though it requires some patience and an interest in science.