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Francis Collins

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Francis Collins

Francis Collins
Director of the National Institutes of Health
Assumed office
August 7, 2009
President Barack Obama
Preceded by Raynard Kington (Acting)
Personal details
Born Francis Sellers Collins
(1950-04-14) April 14, 1950
Staunton, Virginia, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Diane Baker
Alma mater University of Virginia (B.S.)
Yale University (Ph.D.)
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (M.D.)
Religion Evangelical Christian

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950) is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He is director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.

Before being appointed director of the NIH, Collins led the Human Genome Project and other genomics research initiatives as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the 27 institutes and centers at NIH. Before joining NHGRI, he earned a reputation as a gene hunter at the University of Michigan. He has been elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science.

Collins also has written a number of books on science, medicine, and spirituality, including the New York Times bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

After leaving the helm of NHGRI and before becoming director of the NIH, he founded and served as president of The BioLogos Foundation, which promotes discourse on the relationship between science and religion and advocates the perspective that belief in Christianity can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution and science, especially through the advancement of evolutionary creation.[1] In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.


  • Early years 1
  • Genetics research 2
  • Genomics 3
  • NIH director 4
    • Nomination and confirmation 4.1
    • Projects 4.2
  • Music 5
  • Awards and honors 6
  • Opinions 7
    • Christianity 7.1
    • Agnosticism 7.2
    • Abortion 7.3
  • Books 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

Early years

Collins is the youngest of four sons born to Fletcher Collins and Margaret James Collins. Raised on a small farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Collins was home schooled until the sixth grade.[2] He attended Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, Virginia. Through most of his high school and college years he aspired to be a chemist, and he had little interest in what he then considered the "messy" field of biology. What he referred to as his "formative education" was received at the University of Virginia, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 1970. He earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Physical Chemistry at Yale University in 1974. While at Yale, a course in biochemistry sparked his interest in the subject. After consulting with his 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 an Doctor of Medicine there in 1977.

From 1978 to 1981, he 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 a Fellow in Human Genetics at the medical school from 1981 to 1984.

Genetics research

At Yale, Collins worked under the direction of Sherman Weissman, and in 1984 the two published a paper, "Directional Cloning of DNA Fragments at a Large distance From an Initial Probe: a Circularization Method".[3] The method described was named chromosome jumping, to emphasize the contrast with an older and much more time-consuming method of copying DNA fragments called chromosome walking.[4]

Collins joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1984, rising to the rank of professor in internal medicine and human genetics. His gene-hunting approach, which he named "positional cloning",[5][6] developed into a powerful[7] component of modern molecular genetics.

Several scientific teams worked in the 1970s and 1980s to identify genes and their loci as a cause of cystic fibrosis. Progress was modest until 1985, when Lap-Chee Tsui and colleagues at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children identified the locus for the gene.[8] It was then determined that a shortcut was needed to speed the process of identification, so Tsui contacted Collins, who agreed to collaborate with the Toronto team and share his chromosome-jumping technique. The gene was identified in June 1989,[9][10] and the results were published in the journal Science on Sept. 8, 1989.[11] This identification was followed by other genetic discoveries made by Collins and a variety of collaborators. They included isolation of the genes for Huntington's disease,[12] neurofibromatosis,[13][14] multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1,[15] and Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome.[16]


In 1993, National Institutes of Health Director Bernadine Healy appointed Collins to succeed James D. Watson as director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, which became National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in 1997. As director, he oversaw the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium,[17] which was the group that successfully carried out the Human Genome Project.

In 1994, Collins founded NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research,[18] a collection of investigator-directed laboratories that conduct genome research on the NIH campus.

In June 2000, Collins was joined by President Bill Clinton and biologist Craig Venter in making the announcement of a working draft of the human genome.[19] He stated that "It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."[20][21][22] An initial analysis was published in February 2001, and scientists worked toward finishing the reference version of the human genome sequence by 2003, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of James D. Watson and Francis Crick's publication of the structure of DNA.

Another major activity at NHGRI during his tenure as director was the creation of the haplotype map of the human genome. This International HapMap Project produced a catalog of human genetic variations—called single-nucleotide polymorphisms—which is now being used to discover variants correlated with disease risk. Among the labs engaged in that effort is Collins' own lab at NHGRI, which has sought to identify and understand the genetic variations that influence the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In addition to his 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 securing the passage of the federal Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits gene-based discrimination in employment and health insurance.[23] In 2013, spurred by concerns over the publication of the genome of the widely used HeLa cell line derived from the late Henrietta Lacks, Collins and other NIH leaders worked with the Lacks family to reach an agreement to protect their privacy, while giving researchers controlled access to the genomic data.[24]

Building on his own experiences as a physician volunteer in a rural missionary hospital in Nigeria,[25] Collins is also very interested in opening avenues for genome research to benefit the health of people living in developing nations. For example, in 2010, he helped establish an initiative called Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa)[26] to advance African capacity and expertise in genomic science.

Collins announced his resignation from NHGRI on May 28, 2008, but has continued to maintain an active lab there.[27]

NIH director

Nomination and confirmation

Collins with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after swearing-in ceremony

On July 8, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health,[28] and the Senate unanimously confirmed him for the post. He was sworn in by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on August 7, 2009.[29]

Science writer Jocelyn Kaiser opined that Collins was "known as a skilled administrator and excellent communicator," that Obama's nomination "did not come as a big surprise" and that the appointment "ignited a volley of flattering remarks from researchers and biomedical groups." Yet, she wrote, Collins "does have his critics," some of them who were concerned with the new director's "outspoken Christian faith."[30]

Washington Post staffer David Brown wrote, however, that Collins' status as a "born-again Christian . . . may help him build bridges with those who view some gene-based research as a potential threat to religious values."[31] Collins' appointment was welcomed by the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science[31] and by Bernadine Healy, the former head of the National Institutes of Health.[32]

In October 2009, shortly after his nomination as NIH director, Collins stated in an interview in the New York Times,“I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H., and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on.”[33]

On Oct. 1, 2009, in the second of his four appearances on The Colbert Report, Collins discussed his leadership at the NIH and other topics such as personalized medicine and stem cell research. And, in November 2011, Collins was included on The New Republic's list of Washington's most powerful, least famous people.[34][35]


Collins was instrumental in establishing the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) on Dec. 23, 2011.[36] Other projects included increased support for Alzheimer's disease research, which was announced by Secretary Sebelius and Collins in May 2012;[37] and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, announced by President Obama and Collins on April 2, 2013, at the White House. In January 2013, Collins created two senior scientific positions as part of the NIH's response to an advisory group's recommendations on Big Data and the diversity of the scientific workforce.[38] In June 2013 Collins announced plans to substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research.[39]


Mention of Collins' love of guitar playing and motorcycle riding can often be found in articles about him.[40] While directing NHGRI, he formed a rock band with other NIH scientists. 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.[41] Collins has performed at TEDMED 2012, StandUpToCancer,[42] and Rock Stars of Science.[43]

Awards and honors

While leading the National Human Genome Research Institute, Collins was elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. He was a Kilby International Awards recipient in 1993, and he received the Biotechnology Heritage Award with J. Craig Venter in 2001.[44][45] He received the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics in 2005. In 2007, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[46] In 2008, he was awarded the Inamori Ethics Prize[47] and National Medal of Science.[48] In the same year, Collins won the Trotter Prize where he delivered a lecture called "The Language of God".

Collins and Venter shared the "Biography of the Year" title from A&E Network in 2000.[49] In 2005, Collins and Venter were honored as two of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News & World Report and the Harvard University Center for Public Leadership.[50]

Collins received the Albany Medical Center Prize in 2010 and the Pro Bono Humanum Award of the Galien Foundation in 2012.[51]



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[52] as a foundation to re-examine his religious view. He eventually came to a conclusion, and became an Evangelical Christian during a hike on a fall afternoon. He has described himself as a "serious Christian".[23]

In his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins wrote that scientific discoveries were an "opportunity to worship" and that he rejected both Young Earth creationism and intelligent design. His own belief, he wrote, was theistic evolution or evolutionary creation, which he preferred to call BioLogos. He wrote that one can "think of DNA as an instructional script, a software program, sitting in the nucleus of the cell".[53] He appeared in December 2006 on The Colbert Report television show and in a March 2007 Fresh Air radio interview to discuss this book.[54][55]

Collins has rejected the concept of intelligent design, and for this reason he was not asked to participate in the 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Walt Ruloff, a producer for the film, claimed that by rejecting intelligent design, Collins was "toeing the party line", which Collins called "just ludicrous".[56] In 2007, 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.[57]


In an interview with National Geographic in February 2007, writer agnosticism as "a cop-out". In response, Collins clarified his position on agnosticism so as to exclude

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.[58]


In a 1998 interview with Scientific American, Collins stated that he is "intensely uncomfortable with abortion as a solution to anything" and does not "perceive a precise moment at which life begins other than the moment of conception".[59]


  • Principles of Medical Genetics, 2nd Edition, with T.D. Gelehrter and D. Ginsburg (Williams & Wilkins, 1998)
  • The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006),
  • The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (HarperCollins, published in early 2010)
  • Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (HarperOne, March 2, 2010)
  • The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions with Karl Giberson IVP Books (February 15, 2011)

See also


  1. ^ "About The BioLogos Foundation". The Biologos Foundation. Retrieved 3 May 2014. We embrace the historical Christian faith, upholding the authority and inspiration of the Bible. We affirm evolutionary creation, recognizing God as Creator of all life over billions of years. We seek truth, ever learning as we study the natural world and the Bible. 
  2. ^ Google Book Search The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Chapter 1
  3. ^ Francis S. Collins and Sherman M. Weissman (Nov 1984). "Directional cloning of DNA fragments at a large distance from an initial probe: a circularization method". Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA. Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  4. ^ Leon. E. Rosenberg (2006). "Introductory Speech for Francis S. Collins". Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  5. ^ "Positional cloning of human disease genes: a reversal of scientific priorities". University of Alberta, Department of Biological Science. Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  6. ^ Collins, F. Positional Cloning: Let's not call it reverse anymore. Nature Genetics, 1,3-6, 1992
  7. ^ Nelson, David L. (Jun 1995). "Positional cloning reaches maturity". Curr Opin Genet Dev.  
  8. ^ Tsui, LC; Buchwald M; Barker D (29 November 1985). "Cystic fibrosis locus defined by a genetically linked polymorphic DNA marker". Science 230 (4729): 1054–1057.  
  9. ^ Pines, Maya (2008). "Blazing a Genetic Trail/.../Jumping Toward the Gene". Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  10. ^ Pines, Maya (2008). "Stalking a Lethal Gene:Discovering the Gene for Cystic Fibrosis". Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  11. ^ Marx, Jean L. (1989-09-08). "The Cystic Fibrosis Gene Is Found". Science. Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  12. ^ Macdonald M (1993). "A novel gene containing a trinucleotide repeat that is expanded and unstable on Huntington's disease chromosomes. The Huntington's Disease Collaborative Research Group".  
  13. ^ Raphael Rubin, David S. Strayer (2008 Baltimore). Rubin's Pathology: Clinicopathologic Foundation of Medicine (5 ed.). Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincot Williams & Wilkins. pp. 201–3.  
  14. ^ Fauci, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine (Small textbook) (16 ed.). p. 2453. 
  15. ^ Chandrasekharappa SC, Guru SC, Manickam P, Olufemi SE, Collins FS, Emmert-Buck MR, Debelenko LV, Zhuang Z, Lubensky IA, Liotta LA, Crabtree JS, Wang Y, Roe BA, Weisemann J, Boguski MS, Agarwal SK, Kester MB, Kim YS, Heppner C, Dong Q, Spiegel AM, Burns AL, Marx SJ (April 1997). "Positional cloning of the gene for multiple endocrine neoplasia-type 1". Science 276 (5311): 404–7.  
  16. ^ ^ M. Eriksson et al. (2003). "Recurrent de novo point mutations in lamin A cause Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome" (PDF). Nature 423 (6937): 293–298.doi:10.1038/nature01629. PMID 12714972.
  17. ^ "International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium," National Human Genome Research Institute
  18. ^ National Human Genome Research Institute (ed.). "The Division of Intramural Research". Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  19. ^ Jamie Shreeve, "The Blueprint of Life," U.S. News and World Report, 10/31/05, URL accessed 30 January 2007.
  20. ^ Simon, Stephanie. "Faithful to God, Science".  
  21. ^ Lennox, John C. (2009). God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?. Lion Books. p. 176.  
  22. ^ "President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair Deliver Remarks on Human Genome Milestone".  
  23. ^ a b "Transcript, Bob Abernethy's interview with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health.". PBS, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  24. ^ Collins, "The NIH Director: The HeLa Genome: An Agreement on Privacy and Access," National Institutes of Health, undated
  25. ^ "Scientist at work: Francis S. Collins; unlocking the secrets of the Genome". The New York Times. Nov 1993. 
  26. ^ June 22, 2010NIH News,National Institutes of Health, "NIH and Wellcome Trust Announce Partnership to Support Population-Based Genome Studies in Africa,"
  27. ^ Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 86 No. 31, Aug. 04, 2008, p. 33, "Francis Collins leaves NIH"
  28. ^ "President Obama Announces Intent to Nominate Francis Collins as NIH Director," Press Office, the White House, July 8, 2009
  29. ^ Secretary Sebelius Announces Senate Confirmation of Dr. Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health 7-Aug-09
  30. ^ "White House Taps Former Genome Chief Francis Collins as NIH Director". July 2009. Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  31. ^ a b "Obama picks Francis Collins as new NIH Director". Washington Post. 2009, July, 8. Retrieved Oct 2011. 
  32. ^ Francis Collins Leader for the 21st Century NIH US News & World Report 9-June-09
  33. ^ Harris, Gardiner (October 6, 2009). "For N.I.H. Chief, Issues of Identity and Culture". The New York Times. Retrieved May 2, 2010. 
  34. ^ The Editors (2011-11-03). "Washington's Most Powerful, Least Famous People". The New Republic. Retrieved 2011-10-25. 
  35. ^ "Francis Collins".  
  36. ^ "NIH Establishes National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences," National Institutes of Health, News and Events, December 23, 2011
  37. ^ June 22, 2012NIH Record,"Researchers, Advocates Gather to Accelerate Alzheimer's Research,"
  38. ^ February 1, 2013NIH Record,"Big Data, Diversity Initiatives Get Acting Directors,"
  39. ^ "NIH to Reduce Significantly the Use of Chimpanzees in Research," "News and Events," National Institutes of Health, June 26, 2013
  40. ^ *"Jesus Goes to Bethesda: Just how religious is Obama's nominee for director of the NIH?". Chris Wilson. Slate. July 9, 2009
  41. ^ *"Science Writers Entertained By High-Powered Battle Of The Bands". The NIH Catalyst. Celia Hooper. Jan/Feb 1998.
  42. ^ Kaplan, Karen (Sep 18, 2010). "To scientists, he's the real rock star". Los Angeles Times. 
  43. ^ [1] Rock S.O.S. program, 2009
  44. ^ "Past Winners of the Biotechnology Heritage Award".  
  45. ^ Strickland, Debbie (13 June 2001). "Genomic Leaders Receive 2001 Biotechnology Heritage Award". BIO. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  46. ^ Collins Wins Presidential Medal of FreedomNIH Record -
  47. ^ "Inamori Ethics Prize, Past Recipients," Case Western Reserve University
  48. ^ National Science Foundation - The President's National Medal of Science
  49. ^ "Montgomery County, Maryland, Press Releases," December 19, 2000, URL accessed 30 January 2007.
  50. ^ "U.S. News & World Report," 2005, URL accessed 4 February 2008.
  51. ^ "Dr. Collins' Acceptance Remarks on the Pro Bono Humanum Award of the Galien Foundation," National Institutes of Health, October 16, 2012
  52. ^ Steve Paulson, "The Believer,", Aug. 7, 2006
  53. ^ Collins, Francis (4 September 2008). The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Simon and Schuster.  
  54. ^ "Francis Collins".  
  55. ^ "Francis Collins on 'The Language of God'". Fresh Air. 2007-03-29.
  56. ^ Dean, Cornelia (September 27, 2007). "Scientists Feel Miscast in Film on Life's Origin". The New York Times. Retrieved May 2, 2010. 
  57. ^ BioLogos website
  58. ^ Francis Collins: The Scientist as Believer Feb. 2007
  59. ^ Beardsley, T. (1995) Profile: Where Science and Religion Meet, Scientific American 278(2), 28-29.

Further reading

  • "Dr. Francis S. Collins: On The Trail Of Disease Genes". Businessweek. John Carey. May 9, 2005.
  • "Collins Forms BioLogos Foundation". Newsletter of the American Scientific Affiliation. Jul/Aug 2009.

External links

  • The BioLogos Foundation
  • NIH Bio
  • NHRGI Bio
Political offices
Preceded by
Raynard Kington
Director of the National Institutes of Health
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