Born in Brooklyn in 1957, Lander developed a taste for pure mathematics at high school, winning a national competition for school students at the age of 17. He went on to study maths at Princeton before going to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar where he completed his DPhil. But he says he found maths 'too monastic', and on his return to the USA he found himself teaching economics to business students at Harvard.
A chance introduction to mathematical biology led him to fit classes in biology around his lectures and to spend his evenings learning how to clone fruit fly genes.
While still lecturing at Harvard, in 1985 he was appointed a fellow at the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Four years later, he moved permanently to MIT. At Whitehead Lander began to develop his main scientific interest – developing methods of extracting information from the human genome that could used, in principle, to find the basis of complex human disease. He soon realised that the methods would be useless without comprehensive tools for analysing the human genome.
Lander first produced a very early genetic map of the whole human genome, showing the positions of around 400 markers – the signposts that geneticists use to locate disease genes on the chromosomes. In 1990, he received one of the first grants under the NIH's Human Genome Project and founded the Center for Genome Research. The Center developed tools to automate genomics and applied them to produce a dense genetic map of the mouse genome and then dense physical maps of the human and mouse genome; these maps would be essential precursors to sequencing. The human physical map was published in 1995, with 15 000 markers.
Having won funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute to develop large-scale sequencing as the Human Genome Project gathered pace, Lander's genome lab quickly became one of the largest genome centres in the world. As one of the 'G5' with Washington University in St Louis, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England, it shouldered its share of the burden of sequencing and assembling the complete human genome in draft form by June 2000.
Lander personally led the 'hardcore' group of bioinformatics specialists who produced an analysis of the draft genome for publication in Nature in 2001, and he wrote much of the 60-page article himself.
In June 2003, MIT and Harvard announced that the Center for Genome Research would become the cornerstone for a new research institute, to be directed by Lander, that would link the Whitehead Institute, MIT and Harvard University and its associated hospitals. The Broad Institute, named after its founding donors Eli and Edythe Broad who have given $100 million to launch the project, will combine basic bioscience with clinical medicine and computational biology in an effort to use the information in the human genome to develop new strategies against disease.
Lander has always maintained a commitment to activities outside the lab: he serves on numerous government advisory committees; is a founder and director of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and has chaired the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy which lobbies for government funding for basic biomedical research.