Human beings’ newfound mastery of RNA may usher in a new era of disease control. It could also lead to something far darker. On the latest Pivot podcast, author and journalist Walter Isaacson discusses the revolutionary leap being made in gene editing and what it may portend for the future.
Scott Galloway: All right, let’s bring on a friend of Pivot.
Kara Swisher: Walter Isaacson, someone I’ve known forever, is the author of a new book called Code Breaker. He’s also the best-selling author of so many things, including Steve Jobs. Walter, welcome. I feel like you’ve got so many things behind your name that I don’t know which one to pick, but we’ve known each other for decades, I guess.
Walter Isaacson: I think “friend of Kara” is probably the most important …I’m somebody who when I go to the gym listens to both of you all the time and somebody who —
Swisher: Very nice. Walter is from the South. So this is his very polite way of saying such nice things about us. Anyway, let’s talk about you and this new book. Tell us about Jennifer Doudna. I did an interview with her on Sway, but talk about why you chose her as a subject and where she fits into the other narratives you’ve written.
Isaacson: You and I grew up in the digital revolution with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And it produced amazing things — it brought microchips into our homes, and iPhones became platforms. And that was totally transformative. But as I’m looking at the beginning of the 21st century — starting with the sequencing of the human genome and, of course, climaxing with gene-editing tools and, for that matter, RNA vaccines that we can program — I realize that molecules are the new microchip. And the first half of this century will truly be a biotech revolution just like you and I lived through the digital revolution.
And Jennifer Doudna, who I’ve spent the past four or five years hanging out with, is a perfect entrée into that because she discovers the structure of RNA just the way Watson and Crick helped discover with Rosalind Franklin that of DNA. And she and her adviser figured out how RNA can replicate and be the source of life on this planet and then how it can be a guide for gene-editing tools. And now we’re using it as a messenger to create vaccines, and she’s thrown herself into the moral and ethical issues. So there’s a lot of colorful characters in my book. But like any writer, it’s good to have a central character — I can hold their hand, and the reader can hold our hands and we go step-by-step through a journey of discovery.
Swisher: Can you generally explain CRISPR for those who don’t know what it is? Just very briefly.
Isaacson: Yeah, it’s simple. It’s something bacteria have been doing for a billion years. They have clustered repeated sequences known as CRISPRs in their genetic material that take mug shots of any virus that attacks it. So if the virus attacks again, they cut it up using a guide RNA. That’s pretty useful in this day and age of us getting attacked by viruses. What Jennifer Doudna and others discovered was a way to repurpose this, to recode that guide so it would cut our own DNA at a targeted spot. So we could say, “Cut out this genetic flaw, cut out this gene or fix this.” So they repurposed the CRISPR system of bacteria to be a gene-editing tool for us.
Galloway: With any exciting technology that hits sort of this parabolic increase and outcomes, there’s externalities. You’ve really gotten to know this field — what do you see as the two or three biggest risks we face with this explosion, or this envisioned explosion, in biotech?
Isaacson: I think that, first, we should say it’s going to be a godsend in so many ways. People who are blind, who have sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs, cancer. All these things it can fix. Having said that, the two biggest things I worry about are (a) if this sort of genetic supermarket isn’t free — and it won’t be — the rich could buy better genes, and we could exacerbate the inequality we have in our society. Not just exacerbate it but encode it into our species like in Brave New World or Gattaca.
Swisher: Meaning they don’t get sick, or they don’t get —
Isaacson: Or they have children that are six inches taller than the rest of us. Or they decide, with all due respect to Scott, that “I want a full head of blond hair for my kid.” And they edit their own children, and they buy better genes for them. Eventually, it could even be things like memory or intelligence or height or muscle mass or eye color or anything. Secondly, I think if we let this just be a free-market thing, that it could end up being what I would call a free-market eugenics. Now, with eugenics we think about the Nazis or even Cold Spring Harbor, where the government mandates master-race kind of things.
I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about individual choices where people edit out the diversity of our species. Behind me, you can see on your little SquadCast thing these big doors behind me that open to a balcony on Royal Street. I remember walking with your two sons; they were visiting once. Royal Street is filled with all sorts of characters — short and tall and fat and skinny and Creole-colored and black and white and gay and straight and trans and deaf and hearing enabled. That’s what makes our species so cool and so great and creative and resilient. If we allow people to say, “I want to edit out anything that I call a deviation from typical,” that’s a bad thing too.
Swisher: Depending on what typical is, correct?
Isaacson: Right, I use typical because whenever I use normal, people say, “Well, that’s a normative term.” So I’m trying to figure out — typical for me on height is, say, whatever I am, five-seven. But if somebody is born at four-six, you might say, “If that’s a genetic condition, we should fix it, and they can be typical species height.” But if somebody is going to be born like I am at five-seven, then that’s an enhancement if you give me another eight inches.
Swisher: This is not for existing people, right? It’s your children.
Isaacson: Right. Although even with muscle mass, that can be regulated. We have myostatin; that’s a genetically controlled hormone in our body. In theory, you could, especially in younger children, have greater muscle mass. But height is something you probably … yeah, no, no, I won’t get into your Twitter feed, but I know that Scott doesn’t need more muscle mass.
Galloway: Even Walter Isaacson is mocking me? By the way, Walter, when I read your stuff, you definitely sound five-eight, just so you know.
Isaacson: Thank you.
Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.