he was putting forward were so clear that it
was immediately appealing to me. Basic
principles about dominant and recessive
inheritance, and how many chromosomes
do we have and what happens if you get an
extra one, as in Down syndrome. That is
about all we knew at that point. Most of
these diseases had not been figured out at
the DNA level, nor did we expect that
they would be in our lifetimes. Still, it was
so intellectually exciting.”
Later in medical school, and as a resident — and finally chief resident — at
N.C. Memorial Hospital, Collins became
intimate with the suffering disease pours
onto patients. The experience steered the
trajectory of Collins’ research and, oddly,
challenged his atheism.
“I found the relationships that developed with sick and dying patients almost
overwhelming, and I struggled to maintain
the professional distance and lack of emotional involvement that many of my teachers advocated,” Collins wrote in The Language of God. “What struck me profoundly
about my bedside conversations with these
good North Carolina people was the spiri-
tual aspect of what many of them were
going through. I witnessed numerous cases
of individuals whose faith provided them
with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace,
be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they
had done nothing to bring on themselves.
If faith was a psychological crutch, I concluded, it must be a very powerful one.”
One day, an elderly lady — a devout
Christian with painful angina — asked
Collins about his own spiritual beliefs. He
admitted he wasn’t sure, and his embarrassment at her surprised reaction prompted a
wrestling match with the question that
A brutal journey
As a Yale research fellow and then leader
of a genome center at the University of
Michigan in the 1980s, Collins begin mining for the genetic errors that cause human
diseases. This work convinced him that science should tackle what then seemed
impossible: Spell out the entire genome.
While arguing in favor of that move,
Collins and his labmates picked through
the genome on their own to hunt the gene
that causes cystic fibrosis, the life-shorten-ing disorder characterized by debilitating
Previous research located the problem
gene in a 2 million-letter stretch of chromosome 7. Collins teamed with a Canadian lab to hunt it.
“We didn’t even have a map of the territory,” Collins wrote in his book. “This
part of chromosome 7, like most of the
genome, had never been explored in 1985.
… The search was like a detective story —
we knew the mystery would eventually be
solved on the last page, but we didn’t know
how long it would take to get there.”
It was 1989 before Collins’ team discovered the cause of cystic fibrosis: three
deleted letters in a gene for a protein that
transports chloride across cell walls.
Collins says the search was like looking
for a single burned-out light bulb in the
basement of a house somewhere in the
U.S., and “there were no street maps of
towns and villages, no blueprints of buildings, certainly no inventory of light bulbs.
The work was brutal … it had taken 10
GROWING GREEN… BUILDING GREEN
The North Carolina Botanical Garden is building an environmentally NORTH CAROLINA BOTANICAL GARDEN
sustainable Visitor Education Center. This building will put Carolina at THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL
the forefront of environmental sustainability, and you can be a part of it.
To learn about naming opportunities, please call 919-962-9458. For general info about the North Carolina Botanical
Garden and our sites such as Coker Arboretum and Battle Park, visit
www.ncbg.unc.edu and call 919-962-0522.