Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Eric Lander

When President Bill Clinton hosted an event at the White House four years ago to celebrate the end of the race to decode human DNA, the headlines belonged to the leaders of the two competing teams: J. Craig Venter and Francis Collins. But everyone in the room knew that the unheralded star of the race was the big teddy bear of a man sitting in the fourth row.

It was Eric Lander, while working for Collins in the tortoise-paced Human Genome Project, who saw that his team was losing and made it his business to beat Venter's harelike private venture at its own game. With $34 million from the Genome Project and a $38 million loan from M.I.T.'s Whitehead Institute, Lander ordered dozens of special-purpose computers and state-of-the-art capillary machines and built a huge automated gene-sequencing pipeline so insatiable that he was soon grabbing long stretches of DNA from other labs to feed its monstrous appetite. It was his lab's work that brought the race to a photo finish, and it was his name that appeared first on the Nature article that published the results.

Lander, 47, a math prodigy who learned genetics in his spare time, has always seemed a little larger than life. He was valedictorian of his class at brainy Stuyvesant High School in New York City, took first place in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, graduated first in his class at Princeton and earned a Ph.D. in math as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He was teaching economics at Harvard when he started reading about DNA. "Suddenly it was clear to me that all the beautiful complexity of life had simplicity at its core," he says. "This is the kind of thing mathematicians love." Today Lander is leading the effort to use the new genetic tools to find treatments for ancient human diseases. At the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., which he founded and directs, he is bringing together M.I.T. engineers who can navigate the genetic code and Harvard doctors who understand cancer, infectious diseases and psychiatric illness. It's an enormous challenge — just Lander's size.

From the Archive
Human Genome Project: What We Should Worry About