For insiders in genome research, the name Eric Lander evokes a palpable image of the trends sweeping biology-automation, computers, entrepreneurialism, big science and big ideas.
A mathematician turned Harvard Business School professor turned gene scientist, the 42-year-old Lander is director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research/MIT Center for Genome Research. Lander has built the lab into the world’s most productive academic gene sequencing facility and the flagship of the international Human Genome Project.
Personifying the future of medicine isn’t easy. Lander’s pronouncements on biology’s new age are in demand from the White House to Wall Street, and he’s been a key figure in trying to broker a collaboration between public-sector scientists and Celera Genomics, the Rockville, Md., startup (See “The Gene Factory,” TR March/April 1999) that’s racing to create a private copy of the genome. Although those negotiations collapsed amid angry accusations this spring, the Human Genome Project remains on course to produce a draft of the human genetic makeup within the year. TR Senior Associate Editor Antonio Regalado managed to catch up with Lander by phone early on a recent Sunday morning.
TR: What’s been happening at your center during the last year?
LANDER: Well, it has been tremendously exciting. The international Human Genome Project had a three-year pilot project phase which was devoted to developing the methodology for how to sequence genomes. That phase came to an end in March of 1999, and we went from a pilot operation to a production level in excess of 15 billion nucleotides, or DNA letters, per year. We scaled up 20-fold over the course of about nine months, and we did so by less than doubling the staff involved in that process to about 80 people. And if we had had to go up 100-fold we could have done that too, because the whole thing is really quite automated.
TR: Last spring, the breakdown of negotiations between Celera Genomics and the Human Genome Project was front page news. What’s behind that conflict?
LANDER: I think you put your finger on it. The origin of the conflict is that it has been on the front page of the newspapers from the beginning! What happened in May of 1998 [when Celera was founded] is that this all blew up in The New York Times, which decided to turn this into some kind of race and battle.
I think the public face of this, the journalistic feeding frenzy, has served no one terribly well and I am just not impressed by it. If you look at things from a 20-year perspective, this is about as exciting as the New Hampshire primaries. In the grand scheme of things people aren’t going to care an awful lot who did what three months earlier than anybody else. As scientists we should look past all this, but that’s hard with the media recognizing that this is a cheap and easy way for science writers to get their story on the front page. What can you do? People are very susceptible to that.