The six letters that forever changed science will soon be the subject of thousands of words as a burst of new books on CRISPR genome editing make their way toward a retailer near you.
One, from famed biographer Walter Isaacson, promises a sweeping narrative that goes from that double helix discovery to those CRISPR’d kids in China. Another will pick apart the potential of eradicating infectious diseases, while a third aims to make the underlying science understandable, and yet another asks whether any of this playing God business is ethically sound.
It’s a crowded field, but one free of competitive acrimony. While the laboratories behind the genome-editing technology have fought it out in court, the corresponding book writers have mostly exchanged supportive emails and phone calls. And each believes the vast implications of CRISPR make room for a multitude of books.
“It’s like we’re all writing cookbooks, but we have different goals and agendas,” said Françoise Baylis, a Dalhousie University bioethics professor whose book will come out in September. “Some are concerned with different fruits and vegetables; some are looking at different ethnic cuisines; and some are offering advice on how to eat on $5 a day.”
Isaacson’s approach is more like a survey of culinary history. The author, best known for his biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, among others, said his fascination with CRISPR is a natural outgrowth of those earlier works. The first half of the 20th century was shaped by physics, Isaacson said, inspiring his book about Einstein. The second half was written by information technology and the ever-shrinking microchip, which is what led him to his 2011 biography, “Steve Jobs.”
“My belief now is that the technology that will affect the first half of the 21st century most is biotech,” Isaacson said. “And so by telling the narrative story of the advances in biotechnology that began, at least the way I picked it, from the discovery of the structure of DNA to the present, it’s not just a book about policy and morals, but about the absolute breathtaking beauty of science.”
Fans of Isaacson’s work should know it’s a little premature to think about preorders. His process usually boils down to two years of research and two years of writing, he said, and he started digging into CRISPR just six months ago.
Closer on the horizon is the working-titled “Editing Mankind,” from three-time author Kevin Davies. Supported by a 2017 award from the Guggenheim Foundation, Davies set out to document CRISPR’s evolution from a bacterial curiosity to a ubiquitous scientific tool, explaining the many characters and biological nuances at play. The idea is to be “widely accessible but at the same time still convey the scientific details and drama that will interest people in the field,” he said.
Davies’s book, sold to Pegasus, has a publication date set for April, which means he has a lot of writing to do this summer.
“The deadline is looming fast, so I may have to pull a George R.R. Martin and ask for some extra time,” said Davies, executive editor of the recently debuted CRISPR Journal. “Though I don’t have his leverage, unfortunately, so we’ll how that turns out.”
Michael Specter is in a similar spot on the subject of deadlines. Over the past few years, the longtime New Yorker staff writer has gone from labs in eastern Massachusetts to villages in West Africa, gathering string on the undeniable benefits and risks of genetic engineering. His as-yet-untitled book will delve into how society should grapple with CRISPR’s unprecedented power. To him, the allure of, say, eradicating malaria with edited mosquitos or curing a rare disease with CRISPR is too strong for scientists ignore, but so too are the potential risks.
“Down the road, the more mastery we have over life — the way we’ll be able to play with and eventually make the components of living beings — is going to be a fundamental issue in our world,” said Specter, who is an adjunct professor of bioengineering at Stanford University. “It can be great. It can be helpful. But it can be scary as hell. It can do terrible things. We need to have that conversation. And what I want with this book is to be part of that conversation.”
First, he needs to deliver a manuscript to his editor at Crown Publishing Group by the end of the summer, “or else my child will suddenly inherit my house,” he said, presumably joking.
Specter and his fellow CRISPR authors said they’ve had no trouble getting a line on the field’s pioneering scientists, including the Broad Institute’s Feng Zhang and the University of California’s Jennifer Doudna, who have been open and available despite the nagging fact that their respective institutions are engaged in a patent fight.
For Baylis, the bioethicist, the challenge hasn’t been reaching sources but rather deciding when to stop writing. Her book, “Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing,” was all but finished when, in November, He Jiankui told the world that he had not only modified a pair of human embryos but implanted them into a woman who carried the twins to term. That forced Baylis into a monthslong “massive rewrite,” she said, and finishing the project meant ignoring incremental news that broke in the meantime.
Unlike the other books in progress, Baylis’ effort is less to explain how we got here than to probe where we go next.
Back in 2015, she was part of the international committee that gathered to set some rules on the ethical limits of genome editing. The result was a deceptively simple framework: Tinkering with human embryos can only be OK if the benefits outweigh the risks, and if there’s a broad societal consensus that doing so is worthwhile. The issue, according to Baylis, is that no one really knows what those things mean, and her book is meant to shed light on the great swaths of gray that get ignored in black-and-white ethical debates.
“What I really wanted to do was write a publicly accessible book that would encourage people to think more broadly about the issues that I think are in play,” she said. “I’m trying to make space for a conversation that doesn’t not reduce everything to the science and that does not reduce everything to this narrow harm-benefit ratio. I’m trying to expand the conversation.”
Her book, out on Harvard University Press in September, will begin what looks to be a metronomic publishing schedule for genome-editing nonfiction in the coming years. But Baylis, like Isaacson, isn’t worried about a flooded market or CRISPR-fatigued readers.
“There’s about 50 books on Donald Trump that will come out, and gene editing is 100 times more interesting than Donald Trump,” Isaacson said. “So, you do the math.”