Recorded: 02 Jun 2003
I mean the debates were about, was this a good use of money and would we be able to make sense out of the data? I think that there were a lot of people who were concerned about it being a big white elephant that was going to be a huge drain of resources on the NIH funds. That we wouldn't be able to make sense out of it, anyway. There were a lot of people who were concerned that we would never be able to get it done. I think the most thoughtful arguments were the people who said; well we wouldn't be able to make sense out of all this data. It was true at the time because biology had not ever dealt with massive quantities of data. It had not come to understand what power there would or wouldn't be. I think the most dramatic transformation over the last seventeen years since that debate has been the understanding that biology is so much about information that everything-every cell, every organism every individual within each species, every tissue is just teeming with information; DNA sequence information, RNA expression levels. That in a certain way-maybe it's like The Matrix where when he sees the thing-it all turns into numbers, you know, it's sort of like that, that now seventeen years later when you look at anything whether it's yeast or diabetes. You see it and in a way it all dissolves into numbers. That level of description is such a rich description of the phenotype that we can never imagine going back.
It was really clear that very, very thoughtful and smart people didn't yet see that biology would turn into it. Of course nobody there did. I certainly didn't. I think all it was, some people had more instinct that it would-it would go kind of in that direction, but it was just unimaginable how far it's gone already.
Eric Lander earned his A.B. in mathematics from Princeton University (1978) and D.Phil. in mathematics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University (1981).
He first came to the Whitehead Institute as a Whitehead Fellow in 1986, while still an assistant professor of managerial economics at the Harvard Business School and is currently Director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research and Professor of Biology at MIT. As director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research, Dr Lander has been one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, contributing 30 percent of the total sequence of the human genome and developing and making freely available many of the key tools used in modern mammalian genomics.
He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and has been awarded the Beckman Prize for Lab Automation, the Chiron Prize for Biotechnology, and the Gairdner Award for his outstanding contribution to genomic research.
Lander has attended every human genome meeting at CSHL. At the request of Jim Watson, Lander gave his first lecture at the 1986 CSHL symposium on the Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens.