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Francis Collins (geneticist)

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Francis S. Collins
Francis Collins official portrait.jpg
Born April 14, 1950 (1950-04-14) (age 66)
Staunton, Virginia, United States
Institutions University of Michigan
National Human Genome Research Institute
Alma mater University of Virginia
Yale University
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Known for positional cloning
Human Genome Project

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), M.D., Ph.D., is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and described by the Endocrine Society as "one of the most accomplished scientists of our time".[1] [2] He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Openly Christian, Collins wrote a book about his faith and founded and was president of the BioLogos Foundation before accepting the nomination to lead the NIH. On October 14, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Francis Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.[3]

Early years

Raised on a small farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Collins was home schooled by his mother until the sixth grade.[4] He attended Robert E. Lee High School. He is the youngest of four sons, which includes his brother, Dr. Fletcher Collins, who currently holds the title of Assistant Head of Middle School at Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia. Throughout most of Francis's high school and college years, the aspiring chemist had little interest in what he then considered the "messy" field of biology. What he refers to as his "formative education" was received at the University of Virginia, where he earned a B.S. in Chemistry in 1970. He went on to attain a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Yale University in 1974. While at Yale, however, a course in biochemistry sparked his interest in the molecules that hold the blueprint for life: DNA and RNA. Collins recognized that a revolution was on the horizon in molecular biology and genetics. After consulting with his old mentor from the University of Virginia, Carl Trindle, he changed fields and enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning there an M.D. in 1977.

From 1978 to 1981, Collins served a residency and chief residency in internal medicine at North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. He then returned to Yale, where he was named a Fellow in Human Genetics at the medical school from 1981 to 1984. During that time, he developed innovative methods of crossing large stretches of DNA to identify disease genes.

After joining the University of Michigan in 1984 in a position that would eventually lead to a Professorship of Internal Medicine and Human Genetics, Collins heightened his reputation as a relentless gene hunter. That gene-hunting approach, which he named "positional cloning," has developed into a powerful component of modern molecular genetics.

In contrast to previous methods for finding genes, positional cloning enabled scientists to identify disease genes without knowing in advance what the functional abnormality underlying the disease might be. Collins' team, together with collaborators, applied the new approach in 1989 in their successful quest for the long-sought gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. Other major discoveries soon followed, including isolation of the genes for Huntington's disease, neurofibromatosis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1, and the M4 type of adult acute leukemia.

Mention of his guitar playing and motor-cycle riding can often be found in articles about him.[5] Collins' music draws on a sense of humor and fun. While directing the National Human Genome Research Institute, he formed a rock band with other NIH scientists. In its rare appearances, the band entertained selected Maryland and Washington, D.C.-area audiences, such as science writers. Sometimes the band, called "The Directors", dueled with a rock band from Johns Hopkins University, led by cancer researcher Bert Vogelstein. Lyrics of The Directors' songs included spoofs of rock and gospel classics re-written to address the challenges of contemporary biomedical research.[6]

Leadership at NHGRI

Collins accepted an invitation in 1993 to succeed James Watson as Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, which became NHGRI in 1997. As Director, he oversaw the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium and many other aspects of what he has called "an adventure that beats going to the moon or splitting the atom."

In 1994, Collins founded NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research (DIR), a collection of investigator-directed laboratories that conduct genome research on the NIH campus and that has developed into one of the nation's premier research centers in human genetics.

With Collins at the helm, the HGP has attained several milestones, while running ahead of schedule and under budget. A working draft of the human genome was announced in June 2000, and Collins was joined by US President Bill Clinton and rival biologist Craig Venter in making the announcement.[7] Venter and Collins thus shared the "Biography of the Year" title from A&E Network.[8] An initial analysis was published in February 2001. HGP scientists continued to work toward finishing the sequence of all three billion base pairs by 2003, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick's seminal publication of the structure of DNA. In 2005 Collins and Venter were also honored as two of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News & World Report and the Harvard Center for Public Leadership [9] Collins's commitment to free, rapid access to genomic information helped to make all data immediately available to the worldwide scientific community.

With new tools arising from the human genome project and technology development studies supported by the genome institute, Collins is optimistic about the chances of uncovering hereditary contributors to common diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and mental illness. In the overall research agenda of NHGRI, this interest is reflected in the highly ambitious effort to construct a haplotype map of the human genome. The now-completed "hap map" project produced a catalog of genetic variations - called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) - which is now being widely used to discover genetic variations correlate with disease risk. There was a dramatic increase of published scientific papers linking genetic variations to common illnesses in 2007. Collins's work in his highly active lab demonstrates that research emphasis, which is devoted to finding the genes that contribute to adult-onset, Type 2 diabetes.

In addition to his long list of contributions to basic genetic research and scientific leadership, Collins is known for his close attention to ethical and legal issues in genetics. He has been a strong advocate for protecting the privacy of genetic information and has served as a national leader in efforts to prohibit gene-based insurance discrimination. Building on his own experiences as a physician volunteer in a rural missionary hospital in Nigeria, Collins is also very interested in opening avenues for genome research to benefit the health of people living in developing nations.

Collins announced his resignation from NHGRI on May 28, 2008, saying he would continue to lead an intramural research laboratory as a "volunteer"; this will allow several graduate and postdoctoral students to complete projects undertaken under his tenure.[10]

Collins' accomplishments have been recognized by numerous awards and honors, including election to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was a Kilby International Awards recipient in 1993.

NIH Director

Francis Collins with Kathleen Sebelius after swearing-in ceremony

Collins being sworn in.

On July 8, 2009 President Barack Obama nominated him to the position of Director of the National Institutes of Health[11]. The US Senate unanimously confirmed him for this post, announced by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on August 7, 2009[12].

According to Science, Collins "is known as a skilled administrator and excellent communicator" and President Obama's nomination of him to lead the NIH "did not come as a big surprise". However, a discussion about whether his very public religious views would influence his leadership of the NIH played out on blogs[13]. His appointment was welcomed by the CEO of the AAAS[14] and by Bernadine Healy[15].

On October 1, 2009, Collins appeared for the second time on The Colbert Report, discussing his leadership at the NIH and other topics such as personalized medicine and stem cell research.[16]

Religious views

Collins has described his parents as "only nominally Christian" and by graduate school he considered himself an atheist. However, dealing with dying patients led him to question his religious views, and he investigated various faiths. He familiarized himself with the evidence for and against God in cosmology, and used Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis[17] as a foundation to re-examine his religious view. He eventually came to a conclusion, and finally became an evangelical Christian during a hike on a fall afternoon.

In his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins considers scientific discoveries an "opportunity to worship." In his book Collins examines and subsequently rejects creationism and intelligent design. His own belief system is theistic evolution which he prefers to term BioLogos. Collins appeared in December 2006 on The Colbert Report television show[18] and in a March 2007 Fresh Air radio interview[19] to discuss this book.

In an interview with National Geographic published in February 2007, interviewer John Horgan, an agnostic journalist, criticized Collins' description of agnosticism as "a cop-out". In response, Collins clarified his position on agnosticism so as not to include "earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don't find an answer. I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence. I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did."[20]

During a debate with the biologist Richard Dawkins, Collins stated that God is the explanation of those features of the universe that science finds difficult to explain (such as the values of certain physical constants favoring life), and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. Dawkins called this "the mother and father of all cop-outs" and "an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain", to which Collins responded "I do object to the assumption that anything that might be outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation. That's an impoverished view of the kinds of questions we humans can ask, such as 'Why am I here?', 'What happens after we die?' If you refuse to acknowledge their appropriateness, you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world because it doesn't convince you on a proof basis. But if your mind is open about whether God might exist, you can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion."[21]

In reviewing The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by Alister McGrath[22], Collins says "Addressing the conclusions of The God Delusion point by point with the devastating insight of a molecular biologist turned theologian, Alister McGrath dismantles the argument that science should lead to atheism, and demonstrates instead that Dawkins has abandoned his much-cherished rationality to embrace an embittered manifesto of dogmatic atheist fundamentalism."[23]

Collins remains firm in his rejection of intelligent design, and for this reason was not asked to participate in the 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which tries, among other things, to draw a direct link between evolution and atheism. Walt Ruloff, a producer for the film, claimed that Collins was "toeing the party line" by rejecting intelligent design, which Collins called "just ludicrous." [24]

In 2009, Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation to "contribute to the public voice that represents the harmony of science and faith." He served as the foundation's president until he was confirmed as director of the NIH.[25]

In October 2009, an article about Collins in the New York Times alleged that many scientists regard outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.[26] The article prompted a defense from journalist/blogger Brad A. Greenberg, who called the accusation baseless and likely fabricated,[27] as well as from James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal editorial board.[28]



  • The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), which spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • He has just completed a new book on personalized medicine, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (HarperCollins, to be published in early 2010)[12]


  2. News Medical reporting statement of The Endocrine Society 7-Aug-2009
  4. Google Book Search The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Chapter 1
  5. *"Jesus Goes to Bethesda: Just how religious is Obama's nominee for director of the NIH?". Chris Wilson. Slate. July 9, 2009.
  6. *"Science Writers Entertained By High-Powered Battle Of The Bands". The NIH Catalyst. Celia Hooper. Jan/Feb 1998.
  7. Jamie Shreeve, "The Blueprint of Life," U.S. News and World Report, 10/31/05, URL accessed 30 January 2007.
  8. "Montgomery County, Maryland, Press Releases," December 19, 2000, URL accessed 30 January 2007.
  9. "U.S. News & World Report," 2005, URL accessed 4 February 2008.
  10. Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 86 No. 31, Aug. 04, 2008, p. 33, "Francis Collins leaves NIH"
  11. President Obama Announces Intent to Nominate Francis Collins as Director
  12. 12.0 12.1 Secretary Sebelius Announces Senate Confirmation of Dr. Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health 7-Aug-09
  14. Obama Picks Francis Collins as New NIH Director Washington Post 8-Jul-09
  15. Francis Collins Leader for the 21st Century NIH US News & World Report 9-June-09
  16. "Francis Collins". The Colbert Report. 2009-10-01. Retrieved 2009-10-18. 
  17. The believer Aug. 7, 2006
  18. "Francis Collins". The Colbert Report. 2006-12-06. Retrieved 2009-10-18. 
  19. "[Francis Collins on 'The Language of God'|]". Fresh Air. 2007-03-29.
  20. Francis Collins: The Scientist as Believer Feb. 2007
  21. TIME Magazine: God vs. Science pg 5
  22. Alister McGrath (2007). The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Paperback). SPCK Publishing. Back cover. ISBN 978-0-281-05927-0. 
  23. Under "Editorial Reviews"
  24. Scientists Feel Miscast in Film on Life’s Origin - New York Times
  25. BioLogos website
  27. Greenberg, Brad A. (October 9, 2009). "A mild form of mental illness". Get Religion. Retrieved October 12, 2009. 
  28. James Taranto (October 6, 2099). "Don't Laugh, CNN Reports". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 12, 2009. 

External links


pt:Francis Collins fi:Francis Collins zh:弗朗西斯·柯林斯

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