The best books on biotechnology: the promise and perils of engineering life

Who am I?

K. Lee Lerner is an author, editor, and producer of science and factual media, including four editions of the Gale Encyclopedia of Science and the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. His expansive writing on science, climate change, disasters, disease, and global issues has earned multiple book and media awards, including books named Outstanding Academic Titles. An aviator, sailor, and member of the National Press Club in Washington, his two global circumnavigations and portfolio of work in challenging and dangerous environments reveal a visceral drive to explore and investigate. With a public intellectual's broad palate and a scientist's regard for evidence-based analysis, Lerner dissects and accessibly explains complex issues. 

I wrote...

Biotechnology: In Context

By K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner

Book cover of Biotechnology: In Context

What is my book about?

Life is ancient, grounded in the physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology of Earth. In contrast, today's biotechnology marshals new ideas and techniques with the potential to reshape the planet and life itself. The problems facing the world in fighting hunger, pollution, and disease cry out for innovative scientific solutions. For many, biotechnology offers a beacon of hope. For others, the manipulation of life sounds like a siren's song of peril.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Why did I love this book?

Acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson's book Code Breaker, profiles biochemist Jennifer Doudna and her innovative contributions to the development of CRISPR technology that has revolutionized genetic engineering. Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier. Isaacson documents her life and work and well as exploring the potential and perils of gene editing. Isaacson vividly balances scientific explanations of how CRISPR works with coverage of debates regarding its morality. His book exposes the elbows-out world of conflicting egos and disputed patents within the high stakes biotech world.

By Walter Isaacson,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Code Breaker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The best-selling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns.

In 2012, Nobel Prize winning scientist Jennifer Doudna hit upon an invention that will transform the future of the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA.

Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions. It has already been deployed to cure deadly diseases, fight the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and make inheritable changes in the genes of babies.

But what does that mean for humanity? Should we be hacking our own DNA to make us less susceptible to disease? Should…

Book cover of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

Why did I love this book?

Carl Zimmer's authoritative writing, grounded in both science and journalism, reads and captivates like a page-turner novel. Written for a general audience, Zimmer's rich exploration of the history and controversies surrounding how we pass genes and associate traits from one generation to another also offer insights into a field of science central to social and cultural issues related to ancestry, race, sexual differences, evolution, as well as inherited traits and diseases.

By Carl Zimmer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked She Has Her Mother's Laugh as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Elegantly written, wittily constructed . . . My science book of the year.' Robin McKie, Observer, 'Best Books of 2018'

She Has Her Mother's Laugh presents a profoundly original perspective on what we pass along from generation to generation. Charles Darwin played a crucial part in turning heredity into a scientific question, and yet he failed spectacularly to answer it. The birth of genetics in the early 1900s seemed to do precisely that. Gradually, people translated their old notions about heredity into a language of genes. As the technology for studying…

Book cover of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Why did I love this book?

With both humor and scientific precision, Ed Yong takes us through the microscope lens into the world of microbes and microbiology that share our world and, in some cases, our bodies. Yong's book connects those worlds to show our interdependence. His book provides ample evidence that while disease-causing microbes grab most of the headlines, many others in the microbiome are essential allies for a healthy life and are critical to advancements in biotechnology.

By Ed Yong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Contain Multitudes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Your body is teeming with tens of trillions of microbes. It's an entire world, a colony full of life.

In other words, you contain multitudes.

They sculpt our organs, protect us from diseases, guide our behaviour, and bombard us with their genes. They also hold the key to understanding all life on earth.

In I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong opens our eyes and invites us to marvel at ourselves and other animals in a new light, less as individuals and more as thriving ecosystems.

You'll never think…

Book cover of Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech

Why did I love this book?

Sally Smith Hughes' highly readable tale of the genesis of Genentech provides a no-holds-barred look into the gritty details of how biotech firms are born. Hughes reveals how scientists, lawyers, and venture capitalists work together and collide in a crucible of competing disciplines and desires to produce transformative advances. For those interesting in biotech entrepreneurship or simply investing in biotech, this book offers key foundational insights into the industry.

By Sally Smith Hughes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Genentech as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the fall of 1980, Genentech, Inc., a little-known California genetic engineering company, became the overnight darling of Wall Street, raising over $38 million in its initial public stock offering. Lacking marketed products or substantial profit, the firm nonetheless saw its share price escalate from $35 to $89 in the first few minutes of trading, at that point the largest gain in stock market history. Coming at a time of economic recession and declining technological competitiveness in the United States, the event provoked banner headlines and ignited a period of speculative frenzy over biotechnology as a revolutionary means for creating…

Book cover of How to Make a Vaccine: An Essential Guide for Covid-19 and Beyond

Why did I love this book?

John Rhodes, author of The End of Plagues: The Global Battle Against Infectious Disease now offers us a timely, concise, and easy-to-digest book that spans the history of vaccines, including the recent development of mRNA vaccines now on the frontlines of efforts to quell the COVID-19 global pandemic. Rhodes' experience and expertise in immunology and vaccine development show in his clear and easy-to-understand explanations of how vaccines work and why they are an essential public health tool.

By John Rhodes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Make a Vaccine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every corner of the world, changing our relationship to our communities, to our jobs, and to each other, the most pressing question has been-when will it end? Researchers around the globe are urgently trying to answer this question by racing to test and distribute a vaccine that could end the greatest public health threat of our time. In How to Make a Vaccine, an expert who has firsthand experience developing vaccines tells an optimistic story of how three hundred years of vaccine discovery and a century and a half of immunology research have come…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in biotechnology, vaccines, and the human body?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about biotechnology, vaccines, and the human body.

Biotechnology Explore 10 books about biotechnology
Vaccines Explore 7 books about vaccines
The Human Body Explore 44 books about the human body

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Alan Turing, Unbroken, and Genome if you like this list.