Francis Collins

June 30, 2000

It took months of deliberation - and one refusal - before Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, agreed to take on such a key role in producing the "first draft of the human book of life", published this week.

At the time, in 1993, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do as a researcher at the University of Michigan pioneering "positional cloning", which allows researchers to pin-point disease genes. His research team was responsible for identifying the genes for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis and Huntington's chorea.

But once he had accepted leadership of the US strand of the Human Genome Project, he threw himself into it with customary enthusiasm, overseeing not only the achievement of the project's main goals but taking on many of the ethical issues as well.

He also founded a new National Institutes of Health intramural research programme in genome research, which has become one of the US's most important human genetics research units.

Brought up on a small farm in Virginia, he studied chemistry at the University of Virginia and took a PhD in physical chemistry at Yale University. But, feeling he wanted to do something with more practical impact on people, he decided to study medicine and enrolled at the University of North Carolina. He later returned to Yale for a fellowship in human genetics, before joining Michigan in 1984.

By this time, he had become a devout Christian, helping to start a Baptist church with his wife, by whom he has two daughters.

His religious views have not got in the way of his scientific work, although he has pushed for laws preventing genetic discrimination by insurance companies and employers.

A "performer", who rides a motorcycle and has been known to accompany himself on guitar at academic conferences, he frequently works 100 hours a week and continues to run his own research laboratory.

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