Top biotech books of all time

Photo/Elena Resko
Biotech books

It’s summertime and what’s better than to curl up in bed, or under a shady tree, or by the pool, and read a good book? We have curated a list of some of the best biotech books that are bound to get you hooked. 

From science fiction thrillers to eye-opening discoveries to ones that would make you go, ‘now that was a real thinker,’ we’ve got you covered.

1. A Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Groundbreaking Science Behind the Covid-19 Vaccines

Author: Gregory Zuckerman

Wall Street Journal investigative journalist Gregory Zuckerman brings us A Shot to Save the World, a story about the race to create vaccines at the brink of the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking readers all the way back to the AIDS epidemic that hit the U.S. back in the 1980s, and through to 2020 as scientists tirelessly went on to develop a safe and effective vaccine from the promise of mRNA technology, Zuckerman stresses the significance of scientific breakthrough amid company rivalries at a time when the world seemed to be at a standstill.

2. The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology

Authors: Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel

Synthetic biology can be harnessed to manufacture enzymes, create biofuel and cultured meat, to drive sustainability. From how we grow food and tackle the climate crisis to develop medicines, the field has much to offer. But while these feats are praiseworthy, it comes with the risks involved with manipulating human, animal and plant life along with its potential misuse for profit or political gain. As these technologies warrant better, safer regulation, The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology, takes us through the moral and ethical dilemmas of redesigning life, as well as what’s to come from this rapidly progressing field.

3. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Author: John Carreyrou

2022 saw the fall of founder and CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted on four counts for defrauding investors, and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. The New York Times investigative reporter John Carreyrou looks at the life of the disgraced CEO, whose company was founded on the groundbreaking yet improbable idea of revolutionizing diagnostics. Holmes had managed to pull investors, but when it was revealed that the company was performing blood tests using traditional methods and outsourcing laboratory work, it saw the demise of Theranos.

4. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Author: Walter Isaacson

A key figure in the discovery of CRISPR – a revolutionary gene editing tool that can modify genomes, accelerating therapeutic research – Jennifer Doudna, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. While this technology has transformed cancer research, and could cure a number of genetic diseases, it is not without its ethical challenges. American historian and journalist Walter Isaacson’s biography journeys through Doudna’s life and career, driven by passion, as she grapples with the moral issues associated with the controversial technology. The question lies in whether we truly want these paradigm-shifting genetic scissors to be able to rewrite the code of life.

5. An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives

Author: Matt Richtel

New York Times science journalist Matt Richtel explores how our immune system has evolved – over millennia – to battle infections and keep our bodies healthy and protected, through stories of four individual patients. Richtel traverses through time with his tale about the Black Plague and all the way into the twentieth century, a period that witnessed significant breakthroughs in antibiotic and immunotherapy development. 

6. Do You Believe in Magic?: Vitamins, Supplements, and All Things Natural: A Look Behind the Curtain

Author: Paul A. Offit

As alternative medicine rakes in billions every year, with the industry’s market being valued at $97.22 billion in 2021, American pediatrician and infectious disease expert Paul A. Offit attempts to debunk the many popularized – especially as many are able to stimulate a placebo response – yet ineffective, expensive, and sometimes harmful therapies, based on real-life stories. 

7. Borne

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Straying towards science fiction but rooted in biotech, Jeff VanderMeer’s book takes us through a scavenger’s perilous mission to rescue Borne, a mysterious sea anemone that hibernated in the fur of the terrorizing flying bear Mord, in this post-apocalyptic tale. Set in a ruined city where a presently-defunct biotech corporation called The Company presided, Borne is a dystopian thriller to the likes of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.

8. What is Life? With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches

Author: Erwin Schrödinger

Drawing from his expertise in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, Nobel laureate Erwin Schroedinger delves into the existential question of ‘What is life?.’ Weaving together scientific inquiry and personal anecdotes, the biotech book explores the evolution of molecular biology and the eventual discovery of DNA – one that changed medicine.

9. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor 

Author: Adam Kay

Brought to us by British comedian and former doctor Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt is an account of the long days, tireless nights working for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). A firsthand look at the grueling work life of a junior doctor, Kay’s humor and wit paints a vivid picture of what it’s like in the medical trenches, and doesn’t hold back in depicting the emotional toll of his profession.

10. The Gene: An Intimate History

Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee

While the advent of gene editing technologies was revolutionary in medicine, there was a dark side to the scientific advancement – eugenics. Indian-American oncologist and author best known for his 2010 book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee, sheds light on the eugenics movement and Nazism as it takes a deeper look at genes and the implications of manipulating them.

11. A Brief History of Medicine

Author: Paul Strathern

From the endeavors of Paracelsus, who pioneered the use of minerals in therapies to Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine, Paul Strathern charts the history of medicine as he discusses the many successes – and failures – that have influenced therapeutic progression today.

12. Guns, Germs and Steel

Author: Jared Diamond

Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel by American geographer and ornithologist Jared Diamond looks at how biogeography has shaped the lives and fates of communities and ethnicities – Europeans, Asians, Native Americans, sub-Saharan Africans, and aboriginal Australians – across the globe through a scientific and ecological lens.

13. Ada Twist, Scientist 

Author: Andrea Beatty

Ada Twist – inspired by champions of research like Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace – is the protagonist in children’s author Andrea Beatty’s fictional book that celebrates curiosity and innovation. As Ada sets out on various missions and scientific experiments, Beatty intends to spark interest in the field of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in young minds.

14. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Author: David Eagleman

A work of speculative fiction by American neuroscientist David Eagleman, Sum is a humorous yet unsettling take on what goes on in the afterlife, or the possibility of a wide variety of afterlives. Grounded in science and philosophy – one that questions the certainty of both theism and atheism – Eagleman attempts to answer some of the toughest questions of life through 40 imagined stories.

15. Biopunk: Solving Biotech’s Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages

Author: Marcus Wohlsen

Technology reporter Marcus Wohles illustrates – through a collection of anecdotes – how a growing community of do-it-yourself (DIY) scientists whom he calls biopunks, have flocked towards the biohacking movement. It has become a way in which biotechnology techniques are made accessible to everyone, to better understand one’s own body’s biology in a bid to improve health and wellness. 

16. The Antidote: Inside the World of New Pharma

Author:  Barry Werth

American journalist Barry Werth picks up where he left off in The Billion-Dollar Molecule about the tumultuous early days of Vertex, a drug company that has since made its mark in the healthcare industry. The sequel The Antidote looks at how this industry giant – which was founded over three decades ago – has succeeded in the ferocious world of big pharma. 

17. Her-2: The Making of Herceptin, a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer

Author: Robert Bazell

It was in 1979 that cancer researcher Robert Weinberg identified HER-2 – a protein involved in cancer formation – a key discovery in breast cancer research, following which drugs like Herceptin, which targeted the protein, made it into the market. Her-2 marks the story of the discovery and making of Herceptin, amid scientific investigations, politics, ego clashes, which eventually made it from the lab to the patient’s bedside.

18. Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves

Authors: George Church and Ed Regis

Imagine a world where our bodies have become immune to all infections, one where we are no longer dependent on oil and non-biodegradables for sustenance. While this may seem unlikely with how things appear to be going, American geneticist George Church and science writer Ed Regis draw from technologies like synthetic biology to show us how it could change our reality.

19. Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech

Author: Sally Smith Hughes

In this book, historian of science Sally Smith Hughes narrates the story of two entrepreneurs, who go on to found the first-ever biotech company in the world, raising over $38 million in its initial public stock offering, at the brink of the U.S. recession. Through a collection of interviews, Hughes details how the company – a breakthrough collaboration in science and business – prospered at a time of pioneering biotech research.

20. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies narrates the stories of people who have soldiered through cancer, from the Persian Queen Atossa to present-day patients of biologist and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the book documents the various battles – lost and won – to treat cancer, as Mukherjee recounts decades of setbacks and discoveries that have led to the advancements of today.

21. Science Lessons: What the Business of Biotech Taught Me About Management

Authors: Gordon Binder and Philip Bashe

Former chief executive officer of Amgen, Gordon Binder, gives a glimpse into the company’s rise to success, in the race to develop blockbuster drugs. Epogen, the company’s landmark drug to treat anemia, was key to advancing the company’s pipeline. In Science Lessons, Binder offers advice on navigating the initial public offering (IPO) process and various other business challenges.

22. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

HeLa cells, regarded as ‘immortal cells’, were the first ever cell line to be used in scientific research. However, the person they took the cells from, Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, had no idea of this when she was undergoing cancer treatment. Rebecca Skloot tells a story of ethics, race and medicine, and explores whether such scientific discoveries can truly trump matters of consent and ownership.

 23. A Crack in Creation

Authors:  Jennifer A. Doudna, Samuel H. Sternberg 

Pioneer in CRISPR gene editing Jennifer Doudna and biochemist Samuel H. Sternberg narrate the story behind the discovery of CRISPR, a game-changing technology that could cure all kinds of diseases and possibly even address pressing issues like world hunger. While the technology’s potential is admirable, Sternberg and Doudna recognize the many complex ethical issues that arise from the creation of such a powerful technology.

24. Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Author: Ben Goldacre 

A biotech book that prompted the British Parliament to question why clinical trial results aren’t made publicly available,  British physician Ben Goldacre exposes the various dubious practices that some pharmaceutical companies carry out, like tweaking results to sponsoring journals to publish their research, to increase profits. Goldacre also takes a jab at regulatory agencies, which he believes are not doing their best to make trial results more accessible to all.

25. Gene Jockeys

Author: Nicolas Rasmussen

Taking us back to the beginnings of biotech, historian Nicolas Rasmussen examines in this book how some of the first few recombinant DNA drugs were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Rasmussen draws from corporate documents and interviews with scientists, to unfurl how a medium between academia and the pharmaceutical industry was built.

26. The Diet Myth: Why the Secret to Health and Weight Loss is Already in Your Gut

Author: Tim Spector

Quashing various diet fads, Tim Spector’s The Diet Myth rethinks how we should be feeding our bodies. Exposing the many misconceptions about food, Spector looks at how the gut microbiome is key to nourishing ourselves and preventing diseases. He explains how our microbes interact, what makes them tick, and the importance of consuming a diverse range of foods for a balanced diet.

27. Tuf Voyaging

Author: George R. R. Martin 

What if biotech traveled to space? George R. R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame, tells the tale of a space-trader who travels in a spaceship with unlimited genetic engineering technology, as he battles hostile monsters in a universe that has gone rogue. A blend of adventure, science and humor, the sci-fi thriller explores how synthetic biology could both solve and create problems for the world.

28. The Recombinant University

Author: Doogab Yi

Recombinant DNA technology began making waves in the 1970s, with the first-ever recombinant DNA molecules generated by Stanford University and University of California San Francisco. Professor of science and technology  Doogab Yi draws us into the scientific community in San Francisco, today, a key biotech cluster in the U.S. The biotech book delves into how privatization of academic research, and recombinant DNA technology in particular, has shaped the way biomedical research is conducted.

29. How Economics Shapes Science

Author: Paula Stephan 

The practice of science costs money. Paula Stephan, professor of economics at Georgia State University, delves into the costs incurred when advancing in scientific research, and how cost-benefit calculations are made by institutions as they compete for resources, particularly when funds are tight. As career prospects are not always promising, with a lack of permanent positions, researchers are often encouraged to pursue projects that are deemed ‘safe’, over ones that are less fundable, yet have the potential to be trailblazing.

30. The Lock and Key of Medicine: Monoclonal Antibodies and the Transformation of Healthcare

Author: Lara V. Marks

Since Watson and Crick’s double helix model of the DNA, the discovery of monoclonal antibodies have radically changed the path of medicine. Lara Marks, a historian of medicine, dives into the world of mAb-based blockbuster drugs, the risks that researchers took to develop these drugs that would essentially change the healthcare landscape, while also looking at current debates surrounding cost and efficacy.

31. Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions

Author: Richard Harris 

Corruption in the field of biomedical research can be detrimental. And according to science journalist Richard Harris reproducibility of data in biomedical research has been made nearly impossible. As Harris dissects a world of poor experimental design and sloppy statistics – through a series of interviews and personal stories – he shows how bad science can impact the lives of people with terminal illness.

32. Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong 

 Paul A. Offit

Scientific inventions have saved lives. But what happens when some experiments go awry and result in world catastrophe? American pediatrician Paul Offit tells us the stories behind some of the recent scientific mishaps. He discusses how the discovery of opium as a painkiller led to the opioid crisis, the heart disease epidemic that was driven by the affordability of trans fats, and how steps to curb malaria led to the eventual ban of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT).

33. At the Water’s Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea 

Author: Carl Zimmer

Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how species have changed and adapted over time to become what they are today, a phenomenon that is still gradually taking place. In At the Water’s Edge, science writer Carl Zimmer looks at how evidence in paleontology, ecology, genetics and embryology proves seemingly bizarre theories about our ancestors being fish, and microbes before them, billions of years ago. 

34. What’s Your Bio Strategy?: How to Prepare Your Business for the Age of Synthetic Biology

Authors:  John Cumbers, Karl Schmieder

A collection of interviews with innovators in the synthetic biology space, What’s Your Bio Strategy? looks at the various tools that drive gene editing and biofabrication. Karl Schmieder and John Cumbers, co-founder of the synthetic biology hub Synbiobeta, offer a framework on how to incorporate engineered biology into your business. 

35. p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code

Author: Sue Armstrong 

The most studied gene in history, p53, is a tumor suppressor gene – which codes for a protein that regulates cell division and prevents the formation of tumors. Mutations of the gene are present in nearly 50% of all cancers. Science writer Sue Armstrong revisits the discovery of the gene, and the progress since, from dead ends to potential breakthroughs. 

36. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

Authors: Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili

What is life? Physicist Jim Al-Khalili and Professor of molecular genetics John Joe McFadden believe that it has a lot to do with the science behind quantum physics. Merging together quantum mechanics and biotechnology, the book Life on the Edge explores the potentially transformative field of quantum biology. McFadden and Al-Khalili explain how quantum mechanics could be at the heart of many life processes.

37. The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human

Author: Adam Piore

A theme in sci-fi novels, bioengineering is further from fiction and a very much plausible technology today. Journalist Adam Piore explores how the science has advanced over the years, as he talks to people who have regrown parts of their body, and shadows doctors who attempt to telepathically communicate with people who are mute.

38. The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease 

Author:  Meredith Wadman

Taking us back to the 1960s, medical reporter Meredith Wadman examines how a vaccine against rubella, a contagious viral infection that caused birth defects in tens of thousands of children, became a breakthrough in cell biology research. Wadman looks at the roadblocks that led up to this, while noting that, as with Henrietta Lacks, this story involves yet another woman whose cells saved lives but gained no recognition for it.

39. A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth

Authors: Peter Ward (Author), Joe Kirschvink 

Darwin’s theory of evolution has been key to understanding how life on earth has formed and transformed over millennia. But Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink, drawing on their experience in paleontology and astrobiology, propose a different origin of species. As they explore and critique the flaws of various existing theories, they rewrite A New History of Life.

40. The Selfish Gene

Author: Richard Dawkins

First published in 1979, British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s biotech book is centered around genetics and its relation with evolution. Regarded as one of the most influential books of all time, The Selfish Gene has been republished numerous times and is available in multiple languages. Dawkins’ take suggests that genes are innately ‘selfish’ and the way that living organisms behave is in service to their genes.

41. Microbe Hunters 

Author: Paul de Kruif

The discovery of microbes led to the hunt for vaccines, which has saved humans from contracting deadly infections. Microbe Hunters goes back to a time when scientists sought to uncover methods to eliminate disease, and delves into the contributions of celebrated figures like Louis Pasteur, who first studied principles of vaccination and pasteurization, and Robert Koch, who identified the microbes behind tuberculosis, cholera and anthrax.

42. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher 

Author: Lewis Thomas

American physician Lewis Thomas packs 29 essays that cover a range of topics from anthropology and medicine to language, music and mass communication. The Lives of a Cell portrays how the trillions of cells that make us interact, our relationship with the environment and fellow living beings, as Thomas examines the interdependence of life on earth. 

43. Brave New World 

Author: Aldous Huxley

Often compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, a dystopian thriller, renders the tale of a future where social hierarchy is based on intelligence and genetically modified babies are created in artificial wombs. Touching on themes like totalitarianism, technology and control, and the reliance on instant gratification, the book depicts that – as scary as it seems – it is not too far from our world today.

44. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

An account of the history of humankind, Sapiens probes the existence of human life on earth and how we have influenced our society and the environment, taking us on a journey from the Stone Age to the Silicon Age. Its sequel Homo Deus blends history, philosophy and biotechnology, offering a vision of the future.

45. Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts

Author: Emily Anthes 

Dolly the sheep was only the beginning. Human beings have exploited animals to advance in scientific research since then. From dolphins with prosthetic fins to glow-in-the-dark fish that light up a luminous green when exposed to pollution, animals have been manipulated to serve human needs. In Frankenstein’s Cat, we meet these animals that have been modified to benefit us, and look at how we are ‘playing god’ in the animal kingdom.

46. The Trouble With Lichen 

Author: John Wyndham

The fictional book chronicles the lives of two scientists, Francis Sandover and Diana Brackley, who discover a rare lichen that possesses properties that slow aging. With this newfound knowledge that could transform lives, Sandover wants to keep it under wraps as he worries about what the discovery could lead to, while Brackley, who wants to use it to empower women, builds up a clientele of women in Britain. Soon, secrets are revealed and chaos ensues.

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