Hello, I am Eric Lander, President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. I was one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, directing the largest center in the international project.

Since 2008, I’ve also served as the co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which advises the White House on matters of science and technology -- including health, advanced manufacturing, energy policy, information technology, nanotechnology and national security.

In addition to my own scientific work, I’ve taught MIT’s Introductory Biology for the past 20 years. I'm about to launch a new educational experiment, involving a partnership between university and K-12 science teachers. For the last five months, I’ve been preparing a completely revised online course as part of the MIT/Harvard EdX collaboration: it’s the first free online course on basic biology (“Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life”). The content is tightly coupled to the current revolution in genetics and genomics. The course will go live on the web during the first week of March. Registration is now open: https://www.edx.org/courses/MITx/7.00x/2013_Spring/about

I will be here answering your questions for 2 hours, starting at 12pm ET. I’m looking forward to my first AMA!

Proof: https://twitter.com/eric_lander/status/304324765940854784

Edit: Thanks everyone for the great questions!!

I'm going offline for now.

Comments: 1218 • Responses: 35  • Date: 

glant101685 karma

Would you rather map the genome of 1 horse sized duck or 100 duck sized horses?

Eric_Lander1859 karma

No contest: I'd rather map the genome of 100 duck-sized horses than 1 horse-sized duck! With 100, you get information about the population genetics. So you can learn cool things about why some of the duck-sized horses can fly better and others can run better. Can anyone online get us the DNA for this project?

themidnightson429 karma

Do you think immortatility is technically possible for human beings?

Eric_Lander989 karma

OK. KillaWillaSea's threat of sending genetically modified chihuahuas is forcing me to respond!

I don't think immortality is technically possible -- evolution has installed many many mechanisms to ensure that organisms die and make room for the next generation. I bet it is going to be very hard to completely overcome all these mechanisms.

I'm also not convinced immortality is such a good idea. A lot of human progress depends on having a new generation with new ideas. Immortality may equal stagnation.

AveofSpades382 karma

As an advisor to the President, what is being done or do you think will be done to increase the attractiveness of students finishing PhD programs in science? There seems to be a lot of foreign trained scientists filling these roles as US students find the path discouraging for a variety of reasons.

I say this because I did research all through undergrad and post grad. I absolutely loved it, yet, at the cost to benefit ratio of doing a PhD vs a MD made becoming a physician a no brainer. A lot of my colleagues and acquaintances fear that earning a PhD in science is often not commensurate with the subsequent opportunities, and there seems to be little incentive to resolve this gap.

Eric_Lander737 karma

We need to shorten the time for getting a PhD and for a first faculty job. Young people should get out into the scientific world early, when they have lots of fresh ideas. We should encourage grants to young scientists and should encourage them to take big risks. When you're taking big risks, science is amazingly fun.

jrandym294 karma

As former basic sciences researcher (I have a PhD in Biochemistry/Biophysics), I am now pursuing a career as a secondary education science teacher. What do you feel are the most important scientific questions for today's high school students?

Eric_Lander732 karma

First, THANK YOU for teaching science in secondary school. It is so important that knowledgeable scientists take on the crucial (and often under-appreciated) job of preparing and inspiring the next generation!

The single most important thing for students to know is that science is constantly changing: the point is not to memorize what's in the book, but to learn that you can ask your own questions and then learn how to answer them. Science is just organized curiosity!

AxelHarver287 karma

What do you think is the "coolest" scientific discovery we've made so far in the 21st century?

Eric_Lander905 karma

I think Yamanaka's discovery that adult cells can be "reprogrammed" into stem cells was mind-blowing. Completely unexpected. Huge impact.

Warfrog237 karma

What is the evolutionary advantage for baldness? Seriously, why. I'm 28 dammit! I need answers!

Eric_Lander531 karma

My recollection is that baldness is associated with higher testosterone levels -- so that could be the (indirect) evolutionary explanation.

(Or maybe it gives you better aerodynamics as a runner!)

rmsr237 karma

What is your favorite memory from working on the Human Genome Project?

Eric_Lander486 karma

Two memories:

(1) Getting on the phone every Thursday at 11am Eastern for three years, with the same group of people around the world dedicated to a common goal. We argued with each other, yelled at each other, cajoled each other, bucked each other up. We had ups and downs, but we never doubted the mission of making the information freely and rapidly available to everyone.

(2) Taking my (then 13 year old) daughter Jessica to the White House for President Clinton's announcement of the completion of the draft sequence of the human genome. It was great to share with her.

KillaWillaSea202 karma

Where do you think genetics will take us in about 10-20 years?

Eric_Lander530 karma

One amazing direction will be "synthetic biology". The ability to write any DNA sequences you'd like -- to create new genes, new genetic regulators, new genetic programs. It'll be like writing software in DNA. (Instead of C++, we'll have D++.) There will be tremendous opportunities for creativity (and some possibilities for abuse.)

MIT16155 karma

What was your personal motivation for creating the edX course?

PS: I'm a freshman at MIT who took your 7.012 class last semester. It was amazing and it was an honor to be in the second row that one day, watching you dance with students dressed in horse masks for the MIT Gangnam Style video.

See: MIT Professor Eric Lander Dances to Gangnam Style http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Em6ROWGr9I

Eric_Lander108 karma

I'm doing the edX course for two reasons: (1) to share the course with lots more people and (2) to completely rethink the course -- especially how we can use technology to do a much better job of teaching it in the classroom

While I love giving the lectures, we need more PROJECTS, where students can explore data on their own. We're going to use the edX course as a framework to create such projects -- which I hope will hook people (at MIT and everyone) on biology.

crash5592108 karma

Thanks for do this AmA Dr. Lander! As a biological sciences undergraduate student, I've always had a passion for life around me. What was the moment (if there was one) when you really knew biology was your future?

Eric_Lander293 karma

It came VERY late! I loved math (and hated biology) in high school, college and grad school. It was only when I was out of grad school and my brother gave me some papers to read about the brain that I got interested in biology. I started sitting in on some courses at Harvard and MIT to learn some biology. But I really got hooked when I started doing some experiments in a colleague's lab. Bottom line: It's never too late to discover a passion.

FiachB7103 karma

Have you ever advised raising a clone army to Obama?

Eric_Lander291 karma

No, I have never advised the President to raise a clone army. As I recall, the clone army didn't work out so well for the Empire.

However, the White House has carefully considered the issue of creating a Death Star (raised in a citizens' petition). You can find the WH answer here: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/response/isnt-petition-response-youre-looking

ataylor0597 karma

Hi Dr. Lander thanks for doing an AMA! Do you think the future of cancer therapies are going to be tailored genetic targeted pharmaceuticals e.g. crizotinib or more out of the box therapies such as viruses that target cancer cells / supped up white blood cells / etc.

Eric_Lander195 karma

Beating cancer is going to take combination therapy of several targeted therapies (drugs and others). If you just treat with one drug, there's a good chance that a fraction of the cancer cells will be resistant (or develop resistance). If you treat with two therapies that act independently, the chance of resistance goes down (it's the product of the two probabilities). If we can combine 3-4 therapies, the chance that a cancer will be able to escape will become vanishingly small. That's actually what worked for HIV therapy (triple drug therapy). To make this work for cancer, we need a comprehensive roadmap of the mutations in cancers and their vulnerabilities. It will take a decade or more, but I think it's the path to ultimately treating cancer.

medguy2283 karma

What do you think is the most important project happening right now at the Broad?

Eric_Lander154 karma

Wow! It's a long list . . . but some of the important ones: • Creating a comprehensive roadmap of cancer's vulnerabilities • Understanding how to treat tuberculosis, an insidious organism • Understanding the molecular basis of psychiatric diseases • Developing general tools for reconstructing the "circuitry of cells" • Creating ways to develop effective and safe drugs much much faster. • Creating methods to edit the genome, to create disease models and for therapies. • And many more . . .

Basehead200269 karma

How often does PCAST actually meet with the president. What is on the PCAST agenda for this term? Anything ground breaking?

Eric_Lander126 karma

PCAST meets the President several times a year. We wrote about 16 reports in the first term on a wide range of topics -- on influenza, advanced manufacturing, energy, wireless spectrum, STEM ed, drug discovery, nanotechnology, climate change. For the second term, the President has asked us to put a lot of our attention on following up on these reports to help bring the recommendations into practice.

If Redditors have suggestions about important things that PCAST should be thinking about, you can comment here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/connect

Estamio260 karma

Does right-handed spiral /left-handed spiral have a significance?

Eric_Lander111 karma

Yes!! All the important biological molecules (DNA, amino acids, proteins, etc) have a crucial "handedness" -- their mirror-image with the opposite handedness would not be recognized by the other components of the cell.

Early on, life made some (possibly arbitrary) choices and they are now locked in!

Basehead200259 karma

How long have you had your mustache?

Eric_Lander132 karma

Since high school (1970s), when my facial hair first grew! Here's an embarrassing picture of me in high school with mustache and long (albeit era-appropriate) hair.


Quertior53 karma

Why do you teach? What first made you want to be a professor, and which do you prefer: research or teaching?

Eric_Lander98 karma

I've always loved both teaching and research. I got my first taste of both at Stuyvesant High School in NYC, where (as captain of the math team) I had responsibility for teaching the team for an hour every day! I've loved it since.

I love research and have gotten to work on some fantastic scientific project. But I think the greatest impact I can have on the world is through my students. Sometimes, these students come from unlikely directions. Here's a link to a Moth Story I told about how I taught genetics to two NY lawyers and it resulted in a very unexpected ending (which I won't give away here): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwRqe-1pVNI

TheDuskDragon49 karma

What's your opinion on patenting genes?

youcanteatbullets36 karma

His reply to an uninformed poster (who has since deleted the question)

pantsfactory85 karma

for the lazy, skimming readers

We don't!! Those of us in the Human Genome Project opposed the patenting of human genes. We still do vigorously. The Supreme Court is hearing a case on April 15 about the patenting of the breast cancer genes. I wrote my first friend-of-the-court brief about it, explaining why human genes are not patentable under US law.

I'll post a link to the brief shortly!

Menaechmus49 karma

Do you see humans achieving significant extension of life spans within this century?

Eric_Lander169 karma

The most important life-span extension is to ensure that the billions of people living in poverty get to live as long as people living in prosperity. That will add more total years to the human population, and more happiness.

ijoinedredditforJP43 karma

Eric! I just stopped by to tell you congratulations on the Breakthrough Prize!

But as long as I'm here, I do have a quick, easy question -- any tips for becoming a better communicator and public speaker? I was telling my boss about how I want to improve at public speaking and used you as an example of what I'd like to strive for. I try to take opportunities to present and that has certainly made me less shy but there is still a very long way from not being terrified to being engaging and clear and dynamic.


  • a college friend of your daughter's

Eric_Lander76 karma

Practice, practice, practice. I'm basically a shy person, but got over it by lots of practice teaching and giving talks. Communication is not a gift, but a craft. The more you do, the better you get.

By the way, which friend of my daughter is this??

purplewhiteblack40 karma

have you ever run a test comparing Humn DNA to Galapagos Turtle DNA?

Eric_Lander76 karma

Not yet. Turtles have been sequenced (and taught us a lot about evolutionary relationships to birds), but I don't think Galapagos Tortoise yet (they are protected species, so would have to get careful permissions).

My wife keeps trying to get me to go to the Galapagos. Maybe next year.

sterben40 karma

There is no doubt that the Human Genome Project has launched a golden age of genetic research. That said, it also seems to have set the stage for many other "Big Science" projects such as HapMap, 1000 Genomes Project, ENCODE, and now the new announcement of the Brain Activity Map. Given the current landscape of academic research funding, what are your thoughts regarding the tradeoff between funding many R01 "small lab" research projects and the potential advancement gained from funding these large consortium projects?

Eric_Lander58 karma

Science needs a portfolio of projects -- many many investigator-initiated curiosity-driven projects, but also larger projects that create tools that enable 1000s of labs (like the Human Genome Project) or take on challenges that no one lab could do alone.

If a big consortium project will help propel (and make less expensive) the work of 1000s of others, we should consider funding it.

But we should look carefully at each proposed project to be sure that it really serves the overall portfolio.

HGP was only 1.5% of the NIH budget. At that scale, a good return on investment.

mikesgene38 karma

I'll put you on the spot Dr. Lander. I coincindentally happen to be in a joint meeting of communications and GE3LS reps from Canada's Genome Centres. How well do you think that the societal impact of genomics is communicated by scientists and then understood by the general public? Realise you'll really have to compact your reply !

Eric_Lander68 karma

We're not doing as good a job as we should in communicating! Scientific discussions of genomics often use so much jargon that it is hard for people to follow. In fact, the basic ideas are simple and we should try hard to communicate them clearly. In the end, the general public has to make the decisions about societal impacts. I think they'll do a good job if they have the facts.

Rofldile37 karma

When are you guys going to make Jurassic Park?

Eric_Lander79 karma

I don't recall that having worked out so well. . .

Moon77737 karma

Did you get sequenced? Would you consider being part of the Personal Genome Project?

Eric_Lander62 karma

No, I've never had my genome sequenced! I've not had any medical reason to do it so far. If I did have a medical reason, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But not til then.

manny93233 karma

hi Di Lander i am a high school student actually sitting in my science research class right now. do you have any tips for students in high school who want to be intel finalists or want to do well in math olympiads. thanks

edit- sorry this probably needs some explanation. the class is full of computers and for today there is nothing else to do with my experiment so....reddit.

Eric_Lander84 karma

Go work in a lab! The only way to really learn science is to do it. Beyond working on problems where the answer is in the back of the book, work on at least one problem (even if it's small) where NO ONE knows the answer. Finding out something that no one else knows is so cool.

(And, pay attention in class. Does your teacher know you are browsing during class?)

vph31 karma

Thank you Dr. Lander. What do you think computer scientists should be focusing on right now to help with the future of genetics, and computational biology?

Eric_Lander56 karma

We need great algorithms for two things: (i) pattern recognition in huge datasets and (ii) "reverse-engineering" biological circuits based on their outputs.

Aviv Regev at the Broad (a computer scientist by training) does great work on this.

But, with biology exploding with data, we need lots lots more computer scientists in biology.

GermanMLSStudent27 karma

Sir, I just made an account to post this. I am a German student in the field of Molecular Life Sciences, and I watch your MIT lectures all the time. They inspire me so much. Thank you for being an excellent teacher!

Eric_Lander20 karma

Thank you!!

ntaylornc20 karma

Dr. Lander, thank you!

What are your feelings toward startups in the Biotech Industry? Do you feel advances will be made more in Industry or Academia?

Eric_Lander34 karma

We need an ecosystem with BOTH academia and industry. Academia is the only way to create public goods, such as fundamental knowledge that can't (and shouldn't) be owned by any single person. Industry is the right way to take on projects that can and should turn into products. The US has masterfully nurtured the balance of academia and industry -- with federal investments in basic research and effective capital markets for creating companies.

gluckgluck18 karma

Can you tell us about what it was like to create a MOOC for edX? How do you think about the possible impact of MOOCs in shaping the future of higher education? What do you think about the very low retention rates of these types of courses?

Eric_Lander28 karma

It's more work than I realized! I've taught Intro Bio for 20 years, but we're rethinking everything -- making lab videos and electronic problems where you can spin around a protein or scan the human genome. We've been at it for about five months now with a team of 10.

In the long run, I think MOOCs can have a big impact. But we're all still novices at using the technology. It's like the early clunky days of the Internet. We have a lot of learning.

I think that MOOCs will be most effective when used AS PART of a classroom rather than INSTEAD of classroom. There's no substitute for a great science teacher!

We're partnering with science teachers so we can learn from them how to do this better!

dustbunny8818 karma

Mr. Lander, my family has a history of mental diseases. Between Alzheimers and dementia to Loui bodies, it scares me to death that one day my parents and even I may have our bodies but not our minds. Do you feel as if within my lifetime (I'm 24) that we will be able to defeat these devastating diseases?

Eric_Lander24 karma

I sure hope so. Doing something about devastating diseases like this is the reason why I got involved in the Human Genome Project.

The scientific community around the world is working together to understand the underlying (molecular) basis of these diseases. I'm optimistic that we will understand the mechanisms within the next decade.

Then begins the challenge of developing targeted therapies. It's hard and uncertain work. But scientific progress has been accelerating at an increasing pace and I see a generation of young biomedical scientists brimming with good ideas. If I had to bet, I'd bet that they will make real progress in the next several decades.

Slevo9 karma

Is there an ETA for hovercars? Been waiting a while...

Eric_Lander53 karma

I have been waiting for mine since "Back to the Future" came out in 1985. I keep calling Doc Brown but don't get any reply. . .

asd47815 karma

  • How did you hear about Reddit?
  • What is your favorite subreddit?
  • Did it take a lot of convincing for you to perform in MIT's Gangnam Style?
  • Would you rather fight one hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?

Thanks for your time, you are an inspiration to us all, Prof. Lander!

Eric_Lander19 karma

Dancing Gangnam style . . . it didn't take more than 2 min to say YES. MIT students are amazingly creative and I wanted to see what they'd do with my dancing. But I had no idea that they'd get 5+ million hits!

[deleted]0 karma


Eric_Lander13 karma

We don't!! Those of us in the Human Genome Project opposed the patenting of human genes. We still do vigorously. The Supreme Court is hearing a case on April 15 about the patenting of the breast cancer genes. I wrote my first friend-of-the-court brief about it, explaining why human genes are not patentable under US law.

I'll post a link to the brief shortly!

thirdrail690 karma

I'll admit that this is kind of a lame AMA question for someone of your stature. I've had a lifelong interest in science, but for the life of me I can never absorb and retain knowledge in biology. I can name and describe every astronomical body, from an asteroid to a supercluster and how they relate to everything else but I can't tell you how cells function. I kind of know the gist, but can you explain it like I'm an idiot?


  • I know that DNA is a double helix with base pairs. Base pairs of what? Do a bunch of those bases make up a gene? How many?

  • How does a chromosome relate to DNA?

  • How do proteins get made and what makes them?

  • What does RNA do?

I hope you get the idea. I don't understand the scale and relationships of these things. I know I could Wikipedia it but it never sticks. I figure you probably know your stuff well enough to explain these things to the general public.

Edit: If I had read your whole post I would have seen that you're offering a course for just this purpose.

Eric_Lander9 karma

Simple solution: Take my free online course starting on March 5 -- on MIT/Harvard EdX platform. It's got no prerequisites at all. It's about the fundamental principles of biology, so you can understand the amazing things that are going on today.

You can register at https://www.edx.org/courses/MITx/7.00x/2013_Spring/about

We're especially aiming to engage with K-12 teachers, working with the National Science Teachers Association and Teach for America. I think we have a lot to learn from K-12 teachers about how best to teach biology.