Eric Lander: The great amplifier  pg. 4

He joined the faculty of the Harvard Business School, where he taught courses in business management and negotiation. Meanwhile his brother, who at the time was earning his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), urged him to switch to the life sciences.

“Even in high school, he’d had an affinity for genetics,” Arthur Lander recalls. “Lots of mathematicians like genetics. It really fits with the mathematical view of the world.”

Lander took a few courses, and learned fruit fly genetics at Harvard. He also worked with MIT biologist Robert Horvitz, Ph.D., who would share the 2002 Nobel Prize with Brenner and John Sulston, Ph.D., for their ground-breaking studies of organ development and programmed cell death in the round worm, C. elegans.

Then in 1985, in one of those productive collisions, Lander bumped into MIT geneticist David Botstein, Ph.D.

Up to the task

Five years earlier, in a pivotal paper, Botstein and his colleagues Ronald Davis, Ph.D., of Stanford and Mark Skolnick, Ph.D., and Ray White, Ph.D., of the University of Utah had proposed a method to map the entire human genome using restriction fragment length polymorphisms or RFLPs.

RFLPs are pieces of DNA that have been sliced apart by restriction enzymes. In 1978, researchers at UCSF discovered that one of the restriction fragments from patients with sickle-cell anemia differed in length from normal fragments from people without the disease.

Botstein and his colleagues reasoned there were many such genetic differences between individuals. Most were probably innocuous, but theoretically they could be used as markers to create a map of the entire human genome.

Mathematical methods available at the time, however, were not up to the task of unraveling the intricate web of genetic interactions that contribute to complex disorders like cancer or diabetes.

“It became clear that what was needed was somebody to think about this problem who had mathematical tools beyond what I knew,” says Botstein, now director of Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

So he asked around and eventually was directed to Lander. Within a week of their meeting, “we had a lot of stuff worked out,” Botstein recalls.

Thus began what Lander happily describes as his “chaotic career path.”

In 1986, on Botstein’s recommendation, Nobel Prize-winning virologist David Baltimore, Ph.D., invited Lander to become a fellow of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge.

“When I met Eric, I knew immediately that he had enormous potential,” says Baltimore, the institute’s founding director, who went on to become president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The next year, Lander received a five-year MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” to support his innovative application of statistics to the study of genetics.

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