Eric Lander on Craig Venter and Celera Genomics
  Eric Lander     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Jun 2003

Yeah, of course cause it came out in The New York Times the week before. I'd read the Sunday Times article. We all came expecting Craig; Craig was going to be here. We had a meeting up in Dolan. It was a very tense meeting because the entire Celera business plan was based on: first off a crock, a misconception that was promulgated in The New York Times that somehow the human genome project was terribly behind schedule. That we'd only done four percent of the genome and, you know, look how far it was from the finish line and it was terrible and the private sector had to step in.

This was, of course, nuts! Because you look at the Apollo program going to the moon. And if you looked at it in the middle of the 1960s, you'd say “oh, they only got four percent of the way to the moon.” Of course what they're doing is they're building everything that they need to go to the moon. Of course by the time we had done that we'd also had about fifteen percent of the genome in draft form. But we weren't counting draft form. Then Craig comes along and announces, "Well, I'm going to do the whole thing in a draft form and we're going to get" Of course, well, if it's draft we're already fifteen percent of the way there. Very frustrating! Cause you could not get The New York Times to back off on this. They decided that the government and public funded stuff was just incompetent. It was the mid to late nineties. This was sort of the mantra that the market was going to solve everything. Then really the worst part about it was all the promises that the data were going to be public. You knew that there was no way you could make a business plan in which the data were a free lunch.

Craig was going around saying, "We're going to give away all the data. I've recorded no restrictions whatsoever..." And that's what he wrote in Science. You knew that the economics made it impossible and they would have to change, but you couldn't get anybody to believe you at the time.

So their whole project was again incredibly frustrated and united. And it was just a pivotal meeting [1986 CSHL Symposium: Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens] because we all united and said, "We're just going to get the goddamn thing done." We're going to put aside all of our internal difference and that's the one thing that Craig did which I give him tremendous credit for. Once it was clear that somebody was going for the jugular of the genome project, cause the only way that the Celera business plan could work is if the Human Genome Project publicly ended. That was the only way he could have a monopoly on the data. So it had to be for success at Celera that the public genome project would stumble badly or funding would be cut off. What Craig did-which was great-was that he allowed us all to put aside the methodological difference because at that moment we had already gotten to the point where it was clear that there were a couple of large centers that had just about cracked the scale questions. We all just pulled together in lock step and said we're going to do the damn thing. But every single-no, not every year-every other year of the human genome project for about its twelve or thirteen years of existence, there was some frustration. I hated, hated the NIH meetings on the human genome project when all the centers got together because we were always arguing and debating. It was all wonderful because the project would have never gotten anywhere in a field that had no experience in doing this stuff. If we didn't have all of that turmoil and fighting and in-fighting and all this, but it didn't make it fun. It made it intense.

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.