Eric Lander on Involvement in the HGP
  Eric Lander     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Jun 2003

I'm talking about 1989-90, when the several genome centers went in. It was the three genome centers much later. I mean this was in the very early days-the very beginning of the genome project in '89 '90 it was about mapping, not sequencing. The issue there was how to map and there was all this focus on mapping individual chromosomes and genome centers set up to do single chromosomes, single human chromosomes. We went in with an application to work on the entire mouse genome rather than a single human chromosome.

We got it. And we got a great priority score and we got it! But we got it largely because people thought the mouse was little and the human was big. Because the genomes were roughly the same size. But we got away with it because we weren't trying to go head to head-if we had gone in and said, "We're going to do the whole human genome." They'd have never let us do it cause all the medical schools want to do it. So we went in for the mouse. It was something of a stealth strategy cause we thought, well, what we had to do was figure out how to deal with the entirety, the enormity of the genome. Then within two years later, things were going sufficiently well on the mouse cause where we'd set ourselves a problem that was twenty times bigger, we went in and we said, “we'd also like to make a map of the whole human genome too. Cause it's, after all, only another factor of two beyond the mouse.” We got away with it because we had gotten down the learning curve more.

I think this is where, in a funny way, although my mathematics background was really, you know, maybe more scientifically relevant; having taught in a business school for eight or nine years at the Harvard Business School was very helpful cause I came away with a lot of respect for the learning curve. That you got better as an exponential function of how much you had done of a process. And that people could quantify that. The exponent might differ, but how much better you got depended on how much you had under your belt already. And therefore you had, had to-you couldn't out-think the learning curve. You might think, I'm just going to think really hard and then as soon as I start it's all going to be beautiful. But it doesn't happen that way. You have to build up a lot of experience and then you get better and better and better.

So that was-but it was frustrating arguing back and forth about, should we do big scale, small scales etc. Then there was this sense that there should be mapping centers versus sequencing centers and what technology was, you know, could centers change or some magic idea that, well you really were a mapping or a sequencing center. You know, we worked very hard in the mid-90s, again in a kind of stealthy way to make a transition to be a sequencing center.

There were these notions that in the mid-90s that, well sequencing could not ramp more than a factor of two every year. That was, it was very frustrating cause it sounded like it was some physical law but it wasn't. There were arguments about this ad nauseum. The NIH funded fifteen different centers and what was crazy about it, in a way, although obviously I understand why it was a good thing was [that] everybody, everybody-Bob Waterston and us and others-were all funded at a level that was sufficiently low that you couldn't really kill the problem. You couldn't build enough infrastructure and enough technology. It was a politically important thing to have a large number of centers because it involved everybody but we were all very frustrated in a way because we all knew we had to break out and get a little bigger and really, you know, get the economies of scale.

Then, of course, came the Celera thing when it was really very clear that this whole thing was moving along nicely. The technologies were going to be there and then out of the blue Craig goes off and announces that, "Well, everybody's just screwing around. I'm going to do the whole thing myself."

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.