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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Genetics & Genomics

Hacking the Code of Life How Gene Editing Will Rewrite Our Futures

Popular Science
Series: Hot Science
By: Nessa Carey(Author)
181 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Icon Books
Gene editing for people in a hurry – Hacking the Code of Life distils this complex topic into an excellent introduction for a general audience.
Hacking the Code of Life
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  • Hacking the Code of Life ISBN: 9781785786259 Paperback Jul 2020 In stock
  • Hacking the Code of Life ISBN: 9781785784972 Paperback Mar 2019 Out of Print #244622
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Just 45 years ago, the age of gene modification was born. Researchers could create glow-in-the-dark mice, farmyard animals producing drugs in their milk, and vitamin-enhanced rice that could prevent half a million people going blind every year. But now GM is rapidly being supplanted by a new system called CRISPR or 'gene editing'. Using this approach, scientists can manipulate the genes of almost any organism with a degree of precision, ease and speed that we could only dream of ten years ago. But is it ethical to change the genetic material of organisms in a way that might be passed on to future generations? If a person is suffering from a lethal genetic disease, is it even more unethical to deny them this option? Who controls the application of this technology, when it makes 'biohacking' – perhaps of one's own genome – a real possibility? Nessa Carey's book is a thrilling and timely snapshot of a technology that will radically alter our futures.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Excellent primer for a general audience
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 9 May 2019 Written for Paperback

    Since being released on the world in 2012, the biotechnological tool CRISPR has been making headlines. Biologists used to rely on the relatively blunt tools of genetic modification, but this new tool is so precise and versatile that they now speak of gene editing instead. For people in a hurry, Nessa Carey here provides a primer on the powers and pitfalls of gene editing. Hacking the Code of Life is accessible to readers without much background in genetics, focusing more on the applications and the questions it raises than the nitty-gritty details of the tool itself.

    I previously reviewed A Crack in Creation, written by one CRISPR’s inventors, Jennifer Doudna. This still stands as a definitive introduction that should give interested biologists, in particular, a run for their money where all the biological details are concerned. Carey has previously written very accessible books on epigenetics (The Epigenetics Revolution) and Junk DNA that were quite chunky books. The first thing, therefore, that struck me about Hacking the Code of Life was that it is a small, 181-page paperback. No doubt to maximise the book’s reach, she has kept matters light – consider that the term CRISPR is relegated to a footnote, with the more general term gene editing used throughout.

    Two chapters introduce the basics of DNA and how we modified it pre-gene editing, followed by the essentials of CRISPR’s discovery and functioning. Carey draws parallels to how word processors changed the process of writing to explain what makes gene editing such a novel and special technique: we simply did not have a tool with this level of precision, versatility, and ease-of-use before.

    But it is the applications and the questions these raise that are the focus of this book. Carey considers the editing of plant, animal, and human genetic material, outlining the many advantages. The speed and ease with which we can improve crop yields, disease resistance, and robustness are unprecedented. Though still on the drawing board, editing animal genes could eliminate diseases in livestock and make meat production more efficient. It also opens up new avenues for the production of pharmaceuticals, especially drugs that are so far simply too complex to synthesize in a test tube, or too expensive for healthcare providers to develop. In humans we could even treat genetic disorders, simply removing mutations in our DNA that cause them.

    Throughout, Carey is very clearly on the side of Team Science. Much like Mark Lynas (see my review of Seeds of Science), she is frustrated by the public opposition to genetic modification, often fueled by environmental NGOs, and the sometimes irrational regulations it has resulted in. European rules allow plant breeders to induce random, off-target genetic changes in their plants using “traditional” horticultural techniques such as irradiation or exposure to chemicals, but not precise, on-target genetic changes with gene editing. Go figure.

    But being on Team Science also means dispelling hyperbole. The idea of editing genetic material in humans usually meets with two types of response. One is the fear of eugenic-style practices aimed at creating “designer babies” or superhumans. But, as Carey explains, in reality many of the traits we would like to target are polygenic – influenced by many (many!) genes of small effect (see also my review of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are). The other is the hope that we will be able to cure numerous diseases. To have her analytically list all the conditions and diseases that are not feasible targets is a necessary but almost depressing exercise. Of course, things move fast, especially in this field, but a healthy dose of realism is in order.

    Lastly, Team Science members ought to be cautious. Jennifer Doudna was very worried when she released this technique on the world and has argued for a moratorium on human germline gene editing (i.e. editing genes in cells that will be passed on to the next generation, which includes sperm and egg cells). Her hopes for a universal cautious and thoughtful approach were shattered by the announcement of Chinese scientist He Jiankui that he had created gene-edited babies. Carey discusses and criticises this debacle, and, more generally, the PR damage inflicted by poorly executed experiments rushed into print, leading to widespread but unwarranted public distrust. But she also explains genuinely powerful applications of gene editing, such as gene drives and beforementioned germline gene editing, that need to be approached with a great deal of thought.

    Human gene editing raises ethical dilemmas and Carey asks many interesting rhetorical questions that she leaves for the reader to ponder. Altered Inheritance goes into such questions far more in-depth, but she provides a useful taster here. Gene editing of germline cells could create permanent, heritable changes. But is it ethical to be meddling with the genetic material of future generations? If we can literally “fix” diseases (not an outlandish proposal for some conditions), is it ethical to withhold treatment? Does the possibility of gene editing change how we consider disabled people? And what if disabled people want to have children that could inherit a condition that could be addressed by gene editing (the example of congenital deafness is given), who decides what is best for the child?

    Despite the book’s brevity, Carey even finds space to discuss the main players in the development of gene editing and how they ended up at odds with each other, with battles over patents being fought in court. Jim Kozubek detailed this in Modern Prometheus, but it is her accessible writing that make her summary preferable.

    Hacking the Code of Life is not intended to be an exhaustive book on gene editing and CRISPR – several other books already fill that niche. But given how topical and wide-reaching gene editing is, this primer for a general audience is incredibly welcome.
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Nessa Carey worked in the biotech and pharma industry for thirteen years and is a Visiting Professor at Imperial College London. Her previous books for Icon are The Epigenetics Revolution (2011), described by The Guardian as ‘a book that would have had Darwin swooning’, and Junk DNA (2015), ‘a cutting-edge guide to the ever-more mysterious genome’ (New Scientist).

Popular Science
Series: Hot Science
By: Nessa Carey(Author)
181 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Icon Books
Gene editing for people in a hurry – Hacking the Code of Life distils this complex topic into an excellent introduction for a general audience.
Media reviews

"Carey's trawl of potential applications – such as high-yield rice varieties, therapies for sickle-cell disease and germline gene editing – is edifying. A focused snapshot of a brave new world."

"[A]n excellent, brisk guide to what is likely to happen as opposed to the fantastically remote."
Los Angeles Review of Books

"A brisk, accessible primer on the fast-moving field, a clear-eyed look at a technology that is already driving major scientific advances – and raising complex ethical questions."
– Emily Anthes, Undark

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