New Book on DNA and Gene Editing Holds Lessons for K-12 Education

By Richard M. Long

The Code Breaker weaves the stories of the relationships in our anatomy as well as cooperation among human, educational, and corporate forces

Curiosity is a driving force in all the biographies that Walter Isaacson has written. This is true as well in The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. This curiosity is found in both the people Isaacson engages including Nobel Prize-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna, as well as, not surprisingly, himself. Yet, besides the information that is found, explored, and discussed in his 2021 book The Code Breaker, there is something else that is important for the education community to understand. Isaacson book explores a key question of how the biochemistry and other disciplines intersect each other to find the relationships between the components and in turn finds that those relationships are driven by those structures.

This has meaning to the K-12 community because these discoveries were fueled by interdisciplinary thinking that came from all branches of science and the humanities. The 1967 book by John Watson, The Double Helix, was cited as the initial spark that led several of these gene editing scientists to enter their fields. Yet, the recommendation to read this book didn’t always come from a scientist or even an educator. And, in exploring the world of the gene, several cited how relationships between people and ideas provided the path for their investigations. It all isn’t about the science it is about passion for ideas, seeing how they can impact humanity, and having a sense of social justice.

Furthermore, while there is a richness to the relationships of these particles, there is also a complexity to the ideas of how the discovers function.  Just as the twisted structure of the double helix allowed for the discovery of how DNA and RNA functions, within the human relationships presented in this book is a twisting of how sometimes contrary ideas actually interact to move the complex discovery of how genes may be edited and the human genome changed. 

Some of these pairing of ideas are: Competition and competitiveness, making money and making discoveries, being quick to publish and take credit and share ideas. Other seemingly contrasting ideas also include working alone versus working on a team; finding unique ideas to work on versus finding ideas that will produce applications to change the human condition.

All of these ideas have frequently been talked about as being at opposite ends of a continuum.  Yet, Isaacson finds parts of all of these behaviors in each of his scientist explorers. They are secretive and they share; they are hoping to make money but also willing to pass that up.  They are loyal to their academic institutions but will form private companies. 

He also finds that within each of these discoverers that they are powerfully driven by their desire to make a contribution to humanity by exploring the sciences; but they also have a background in the humanities. Their thinking isn’t bound by one discipline or one sector; they see beyond the surface into the structures and then take the structures apart. They are objective and warmed by passion, while being inquisitive yet steely firm in their convections. 

What Isaacson has found sounds like a paradox. Yet, if we apply the techniques of the bench scientist to the morass of human relationships; the paradox is resolved by seeing the parts of ideas such as being competitive with being cooperative as twisting back on themselves and creating a soup where each ingredient brings forward everyone towards their own goals.

For those of us in education the implications are many, we need to continue to develop the ideas of a liberal arts education with the requirements of the scientific process.  We need to shift from ideas that are all or nothing – either someone is an analyzer, or they are a synthesizer.  Neither poll is right but without one, the other is simply a point without dimension and meaning.

Richard M. Long is executive director of the Learning First Alliance.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.

Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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A scientist holding up a glass slide used for a run on a sequencing machine.