Francis Collins: DNA Helmsman

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Seven years ago, when Francis Collins became the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Craig Venter had not yet brazened his way onto center stage. At that point, what loomed before Collins was the challenge of pulling off a technological tour de force that many ranked alongside splitting the atom and landing men on the moon. "There is only one human genome project, and it will happen only once," Collins said at the time. "The chance to stand at the helm of that project and put my own personal stamp on it is more than I could imagine."

That Collins has in large measure succeeded ranks as no small accomplishment, given the unwieldy nature of the international consortium with which he has had to deal since 1993. In order to respond to Venter's challenge, for example, Collins and his allies had to persuade scientists from six countries and multiple government agencies and university-based laboratories to cooperate rather than compete. The result of those efforts--a first draft of the book of man--was to appear with Venter's work in the journal Science until it was pulled and sent to Nature in a last-minute dispute over access.

To Collins, formerly a medical geneticist at the University of Michigan, the effort to map and sequence the human genome ranks as one of humankind's noblest endeavors. It dismays him, he says, to see the importance of the enterprise besmirched by the continuing focus on such tawdry matters as the rivalry that developed between him and Venter. In an effort to heal that breach, Collins now says that he considers Venter to have "been a stimulant in a very positive way." At the same time, he acknowledges, "we'll never find ourselves going out for a beer on Friday nights just for the heck of it. We're different people; we're wired in a different way."

Was there a race between Collins' publicly financed team and Venter's commercial venture? You bet there was. But, as Collins points out, Venter would not even have been a contender had it not been for the much larger international endeavor. As Collins sees it, the winner of the rancorous contest that started in 1998 is not any individual scientist or team of scientists but everybody in the world. In essence, what the race produced was a collective self-portrait at a faster pace and cheaper price than most had dared dream. And what could be wrong with that?