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September 22, 2000 - Image 16

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The Michigan Daily, 2000-09-22

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16 - The Michigan Daily - Friday, September 22, 2000

FRIDAY Focus

1

d one oft ose5 io anno nCedt tat t
.a genome was Imostcomplete4y
se uCe ac i ne was On Cam
wnt Ts pas icnd auture Cere iat he cnivesis_
orkatt .i _heut.eofe.c
re;re t te nveritS

Francis Collins, director of the Nation al
Human Genome Research Institute,
began his interest in genetics as an
undergraduate student at the University of Vir-
ginia, where he received his bachelor's degree
in chemistry. Collins went on to receive his
PhD. in physical chemistry at Yale University.
Following his graduation from Yale, Collins
enrolled in medical school at the University of
North Carolina, where he entered the field of
medical genetics. Collins began working at the
University in 1984 as a research team leader.
His team successfully identified the genes for
cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis and Hunt-
ington's Disease, a fatal brain disordr. In
1993, Collins accepted the position of director
at the research institute, second only to James
Watson,
the co-dis-
coverer of
the geo-
yshape of
* n M ,DNA -
the double
helix
C o 11 i n s
now leads
the Human Genome Project, which aims to
map human DNA by 2005. Last June, Collins
joined President Bill Clinton in announcing to
the world that human DNA was 85 percent
sequenced.
The Michigan Daily: Has any of the
work you did here at the University been
able to aid you in what you're doing now?
Francis Collins: Oh yeah. When I was here,
my research lab was focused on trying to find
specific genes that are responsible for certain
genetic disorders. A lot of my work in the
1980s was trying to find the Cystic Fibrosis
gene which we finally succeeded at in 1989,
right over there in the (Medical Science
Research Building) research complex of the
Medical School. That was incredibly difficult
to do because we didn't have any of the
research tools. We didn't have a sequence, we
didn't have maps, we didn't have anything.
Every time you tried to do something it was
like feeling your way in the dark. It was a very
strong motivator to get interested in the idea of
having the whole human genome figured out
once and for all. In fact, I applied for, and
received one of the first genome center grants
in 1990 when the genome project was starting.
I was one of the people who was setting up the
research program to get the job done. After
being here for three years running that center,
the chance came up to go and direct the whole
enterprise at NIH. It was pretty hard to decide
to do that because I was pretty happy here, but
after a while I decided it was too good to pass
up.
TMD: What are your goals for the
National Center for Human Genome
Research, since you are only the second
director, behind James Watson?
FC: Well, the Genome Institute -it's now
an institute, it started out as a center. It's
called the National Human Genome
Research Institute. Over the course of the
past 10 years we have gone through a
detailed process of scientific analysis and
consultation with the scientific community
about what our goals ought to be, so it's not
just I decide one day, 'Okay I think we
should do this and tomorrow we'll do that.'
We have a series of five-year plans that enu-
merate with a fair amount of specificity what
we should be trying to do and while the
sequencing of the genome has got all the
attention, there are seven other goals that
we're working on right now that are equally

important if we're going to understand what
this script is telling us about human biology.
That includes things like understanding the
variations that make us all different from
each other, understanding how it is that these
genes direct proteins because that's what
they do and how do we begin to understand
how those proteins function. We need better
computational methods to deal with this
massive amount of data that's being pro-
duced. That's also part of our work, is to
develop those computer methods. And the
whole ethical, legal and social issues compo-
nent is part in parson of our research agenda.
We don't think that should be left to chance
or for somebody else to deal with. That's
part of our responsibility too.
TMD: Why did you, from the National
Human Genome Institute, and J. Craig
Venter, CEO of Celera Genomics,
announce that the human genome was
approximately 85 percent sequenced
instead of waiting until it was complete?
FC: We had set a milestone a year and a
half before, that we were going to try to
achieve this draft coverage of 90 percent of the
sequence by a certain date, mainly June of
2000. People were very interested in that and
were watching our progress on a daily basis
because of course we were putting it up on the
Web, so it was hardly a secret. When it got to
the point when it was pretty clear we were
going to make that deadline, a lot of folks felt
this was an
occasion to try "I think I have
to gain some ,

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, speaks outside the
Rackham Building on Monday after addressing the School of Public Health's annual symposium.

way to try to understand the natural
world. It allows you to do experiments
and ask rigorous questions and get vigor-
ous answers. But I think most of us have
a sense there maybe is a little more to the
world than the mechanical parts, that sci-
ence is appropriately organized to inves-
tigate and that gets more into the
spiritual realm. I have no examples to
report of circumstances where what I
know as a rigorous scientist has collided
with what I believe as a person of faith. I
find them actually quite delightful to
integrate, and being a scientist who's
exploring the
anotier bi o l o gica
nature of

m

increased career in me, in
degree of pub-
lic interest. The couple of them,
President of the
United States know what they
has been very
interested in
this project for Head of the
a long time.
Specifically, he ---
wanted to be involved in some sort of
announcement. So, we decided that was a rea-
sonable thing to do. Although. I'm actually
going to be more excited about these papers
we're working on right now that describes
what it is that we found in the sequence. The
announcement in June was more sort of a
odometer moment where you say you've went
past a certain point. But it was pretty exciting.
it was a defined moment in history where you
can say "Okay, we've got most of it." And to
finish it, to actually get to 100 percent will
take the better of'the next two and a half years.
The last part is always the hardest. It's the part
that didn't come through easily, so you're
going to have to develop some new ways of
getting your hands on it. Getting to 90 percent,
much of that got done in the six or nine
months before June of 2000, the last instances
will take us a lot longer.
TMD: When is the projected outcome
that you will be done?
FC: We're aiming to have finished all of
the human chromosomes in a highly accu-
rate form with no gaps by April 25, 2003,
the 50th anniversary of the publication of the
double helix. And if we can do it sooner,
we'll do that too.
TMD: During our research, we found
that you're pretty religious. How do you
balance your religious beliefs and your
scientific work? -
FC: I actually find it easy to balance,
and quite comfortable to have both a sci-
entific worldview and a religious world-
view coexisting within me. Science is the

raybe a
but I don't
y are."
- Francis Collins
National Human Genome
Research Institute

human beings
is also an
experience that
makes you
appreciate the
amazing nature
of the whole
biological
world. So, I
think actually

TMD: The University has been plan-
ning an extensive Life Sciences Institute
for some time now. What do you think is
important for the University to do to cre-
ate the best program possible?
FC: Well I think it's terrific that they've
identified this as a very high priority for this
very strong and vigorous University. I would
say they need to bring in the best people. This
is a strong University and they should have a
good chance to reach the top people in the
fields. They should set this up in a fashion
where it's very inter-disciplinary because
genomics is a combination of biology with
computer science with engineering with
automation experts, with medicine. It's not
one of those things you go off in a corner and
do by yourself. It's a very team-oriented multi-
disciplinary enterprise. For a successful
genomic research program you want to have
strength in all those areas. Take particularly
the field of computational biology where you
have folks who are equally at home writing a
program in some computer language and
understanding the intricacies of how mito-
chondria work. You want those people particu-
larly well represented. If I was starting right
now with graduate studies, that's the field I'd
go into. Certainly this Life Sciences Initiative
has identified that as an area of worth.
TMD: What do you think a Life Sci-
ences Initiative can accomplish that sepa-
rate University programs in fields like
biology and chemistry can not accomplish
on its own?
FC: Well, as I said, genomics has much of
its promise tied up in the need to be interactive
between disciplines. You're going to see
genomics flourish in individual departments.
Not only do you need people with different
perspectives on science sitting in the same
room trying to tackle problems - the
chemist, the physicist, the engineer, the biolo-
gist, the com-

0
0

there's a terrible myth or rumor out there
that if you're going to be a rigorous sci-
entist, you have to put your faith on the
shelf and if you're going to be a person
of faith, science is dangerous. Those are
not true, and there are a lot of biologists
who feel the same way.
TMD: What comes after the entire
genome is sequenced?
FC: Well, we have to figure out what it
means. We have a 3 billion letter textbook
which we can't understand, written in a
funny alphabet with only four letters, a lot of'
which seems to be filler, but we're not quite
sure. And it's going to take us decades to
really unravel the significance of what all
these letters are

trying to tell us.
There are some
parts we under-
stand better than
others. If you
really look at
what we know,
it's enormously
dwarfed by what
we don't. So,
there's going to
be lots of fantas-
tic science to be
done. Occasion-
ally students

"I think most of us have a
sense there maybe is a
little more to the world
than the mechanical parts
.that gets into the
spiritual realm. "
- Francis Collins
Head of the National Genome Research Institute

puter scientist
- - but you also
need core facili-
ties that no sin-
gle investigator
can easily put
together. A lot
of it is very
tee h n olo g y
based. Why do
you need an ini-
tiative instead of
just more of the
same? To pull

*I

come up to me and say 'I've missed out. I
want to understand biology and it's all been
done.' Well no, we have lots of opportunities
for terrific careers in biological science. A
lot of the things that were very limiting have
been sort of pulled away because now you
have this database you can start to work
with. Science is going to be done very dif-
ferently now in terms of understanding
human biology, but it can be done more
powerfully and you get a lot more answers to
a lot more questions.
TMD: Where do you see the life sci-
ences heading in the next few years?
FC: Life sciences are many in number and
very interactive with each other. Some are
going to be more immediately affected by this
than others, but I think it's fair to say there is
no life science that won't be touched by the
enonme p nroiect in the 'minAr vears I wAid

people together
around common scientific questions, and also
to allow them to collect resources, like how
the technology can answer those questions.
TMD: Do you plan on remaining linked
to the University?
FC: Oh gosh, I don't know. They've been
very kind to let me stay on here in my profes-
sor-on-leave capacity, which doesn't cost them
anything. It's nice to have the connection. I
have another connection in that my wife is on
the faculty here and it's a reason to come back
to Ann Arbor fairly often. My daughter is here
as a social worker. So there's lots of connec-
tions with Ann Arbor. I have no idea what I'm
going to do after I get to the point of no longer
being the right person to run the genome pro-
ject. And I don't know when that will be. I
hope I'll know it before everyone else has fig-
ured it out. That's my worst nightmare, to sort
nf hana on while evervone elsie i svine

.. ;', ., e .'e t, : .w '. ad {: ,. i:, . v .. .ln I J }':. . ... s . . 3',Y.y: Ra u".

I

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