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A number of events and news media pieces this month have reflected public and government interest in biological research in general and Professor of Biology Eric Lander's work in particular.
Professor Lander, director of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research, has been a newsmaker ever since he ventured 10 years ago into one of the biggest projects in modern science -- mapping and sequencing the three billion letters that make up a human being. But now, as the Human Genome Project races toward completion, his brand of science and the implications of the project he leads are finally seeping into the nation's consciousness at many levels.
Last week, Boston got an unusual peek at Professor Lander and his drive when the Boston Globe profiled him in its Sunday magazine. The article, which delved into what makes him tick, chronicled the unusual route by which Professor Lander, a talented mathematician with no biology degree, came to become one of the nation's most cited biologists and a leader of the biggest biology project in history.
"It's hard to overstate the contributions he's made [to the Human Genome Project]," NIH's Francis Collins is quoted as saying. "More so than any other person I can think of, he has touched the various parts of the genome project in profound fashion."
WHITE HOUSE EVENING
No wonder then that President Clinton and the First Lady chose to call on Professor Lander to help host the eighth Millennium Evening at the White House featuring a discussion on technologies that will affect our lives in the new millennium.
On October 12, three days after the Boston Globe profile, Lander joined the Clintons and Vinton Cerf, "father of the Internet," to lead the country on a discussion about the Human Genome Project and its impact on society.
Millennium Evenings at the White House are a series of lectures and cultural showcases that highlight the creative inventiveness of the American people through ideas, art and scientific discoveries. The lectures present prominent scholars, creators and visionaries and are accessible to the public via cybercast and broadcast. The October 12 discussion led by the two scientists and the Clintons sought to examine how two major fields -- information technology and genetic research -- will affect our lives.
"We are in the midst of one of the most remarkable revolutions in the history of mankind," Professor Lander told the audience. "The revolution was sparked by scientific curiosity about life, but its consequences will be so far-reaching as to touch every aspect of society. It is an information revolution, unlocking databases of human heredity and evolutionary history. It is a medical revolution, holding the prospect that our children's children will never die of cancer. And it is an intellectual revolution that may reshape -- for better or for worse -- our notions of human potential."
Professor Lander also summarized the role of genomics in biology, calling it biology's periodic table, defining not 100 elements but 100,000 genes.
"Scientists will know that every phenomenon must be explainable in terms of this measly list of 100,000 components," he said. "And just as chemistry textbooks have the periodic table in the inside front cover, so too will biology texts have the sequence of the human genome. Conveniently, one human genome -- 3 billion letters -- fits snugly on a single CD-ROM," he explained.
In the new millennium, genomics will help scientists find the genes for disease susceptibility and enable them to infer the wiring diagram -- the circuits and software of the cell -- and uncover the cellular clockwork driving the mayhem of disease, Professor Lander said. He predicted that by the end of the next century, cancer will no longer be the dreaded scourge it is today.
He also pointed out that the social consequences of genomics will be far-reaching. Genomics will affect privacy and public policy issues and raise ethical and legal questions that we must resolve in the coming century, he said.
Professor Lander concluded by saying that one central theme in the American conversation -- "All the Same, All Different" or "All Related, All Different" -- also applied to genomics.
"When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' the words had a rather narrow meaning. But they have grown with the country -- reinterpreted through the centuries by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls, Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg and Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial," Professor Lander said. "That fundamental credo -- that people must be judged for how they act, not for accidents of birth -- will have even greater importance as we develop thousands of new ways in which we could, in principle, subdivide people."
The Clintons encouraged the public to participate in the evening's discussion by e-mailing questions for Dr. Cerf or Professor Lander, and the First Couple also asked questions during the cybercast. President Clinton, in particular, was interested in the privacy and patenting issues, and led some of the discussions on these topics.
"I was very impressed with the President's knowledge about these issues and how well informed he was about the field itself," said Professor Lander, who returned to Boston on Wednesday to some fresh media limelight.
This time, the media's interest centered around an October 15 Science paper co-authored by Professor Lander on the use of DNA chips to devise the first systematic and objective method for diagnosing cancer subtypes (see story, page 1). On October 14, all three major networks -- ABC, NBC, and CBS -- aired a story on the technology, and Friday's newspapers also covered the story.
The media's interest in Lander reflects the public's interest in understanding the progress and discoveries that are going to change our lives in the new millennium, said Professor Gerald Fink, director of the Whitehead Institute. "In addition to being a brilliant scientist and leader, Eric is also a great communicator. As scientists whose work is going to affect society, it is our responsibility to keep the public informed about our discoveries and their implications. Eric's knack for communicating to the lay audience and crystallizing the implications of science is remarkable and a great public service."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 1999.