Mendel Medal 2012 – Professor Eric Lander

Eric Lander originally trained as a mathematician at Princeton and Oxford, but he reputedly found life as a pure mathematician too “monastic” because it is such a lonely pursuit, so he was eventually seduced by the more gregarious nature of biology and genetics.  Of course he has continued to use mathematical approaches and did not abandon the clarity of thought that distinguishes the best mathematicians.  He says he picked up biology and genetics more or less casually “on the street corner”, but this approach has served him, and us, well.

From the earliest stages, Lander played a major role in the human and mouse genome projects, setting up high throughput analysis at the Whitehead Institute in MIT, where in 1990 he established the Center for Genome Research (WICGR).  Data and biological resources were made instantly available – collaboration and team work was the name of the game.  Many new tools and resources had to be developed before the fun part of that stage, putting together the maps, could be enjoyed.  But it is perhaps in developing methods to study complex traits that Lander has been consistently at the forefront over the past twentyfive years.  From his first encounter with David Botstein, when they engaged in argument on how statistics might be used to study the genetics of such traits, many novel approaches have emerged, first under the Lander name often with illustrious collaborators, like Botstein.  Lander has been consistently associated with concepts such as homozygosity mapping, the move from RFLPs to SNPs, the revival of linkage disequilibrium leading to the development of haplotype maps and the Hapmap project.  Discussions on the role of common variants in common disease were enriched by Lander’s contributions, as well as how to search for signs of specific selection in the human genome, or the systematic identification of regulatory element binding sites.  With the advent of improved genome-wide association maps, the daunting task of unravelling epistatic interactions has been embraced by Lander and colleagues.

The list of Lander publications constitutes a roadmap of progress in human genetics, with elegant sidetracks to other species.  His talks are arresting and invigorating; he speaks clearly, logically.  He is a most worthy Mendel Medallist for the Genetics Society and a wonderful keynote speaker for the 4th International Congress of Quantitative Genetics where his breadth and foresight will surely stimulate future research and the development of new strategies in quantitative genetics.