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Pope Names Two U.S. Geneticists to Vatican Sciences Academy
Carol Glatz
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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VATICAN CITY (CNS)—Pope Benedict XVI has named two prominent U.S. geneticists as members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Edward M. De Robertis, a professor of biological chemistry at the school of medicine of the University of California at Los Angeles, are the newly appointed members.

The Vatican announced their appointments to the pontifical academy Oct. 10.

Collins, 59, is the former director of the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute, which made a complete map of the human genome under his leadership.

Collins' research led to the discoveries of a series of important genes, including the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis, and he also isolated genes linked to other diseases, the Vatican said.

Collins, who had been regularly invited to speak at conferences of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, has long urged scientists not to divorce their work from their spirituality. He has said that the discovery of a person's genes "is not who he is as a person."

He won a Christopher Award in 2007 for his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The award honors works that affirm the highest values of the human spirit.

After leaving the genome project in August 2008, Collins, who has said he became a Christian at age 27, founded the BioLogos Foundation in Washington, which says in its mission statement: "We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation."

Born April 14, 1950, in Staunton, Va., Collins earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Virginia in 1970 and a doctorate in physical chemistry at Yale University in 1974.

He later became interested in molecular biology and genetics and enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina, where he earned his degree in 1977.

After a stint as a fellow in human genetics at Yale Medical School, Collins joined the University of Michigan in 1984 in a position that would eventually lead to a professorship of internal medicine and human genetics.

Collins became director in 1993 of what was then called the National Center for Human Genome Research and under his leadership the project of mapping the human genome was completed in 15 years.

U.S. President Barack Obama named Collins to head the National Institutes of Health in July.

De Robertis, 62, was born in Boston. He grew up in Uruguay where he received his degree in medicine.

After completing studies in chemistry in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he pursued his postdoctorate research at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, under the pioneering developmental biologist Sir John Gurdon.

De Robertis isolated the first gene responsible for controlling the development of vertebrates while he was a professor of cellular biology at the University of Basel, Switzerland.

He has been teaching chemical biology at UCLA's school of medicine since 1985 and served as president of the International Society of Developmental Biologists from 2002 to 2006.

The Vatican said De Robertis' research in development-controlling genes in the embryos of vertebrates led to the discovery that the molecular mechanisms for embryonic patterning are similar in all animal embryos.

"Some fundamental tool kit creates the form and patterning of the embryo across the animal kingdom," De Robertis has explained.

His work has also aided current gene reprogramming experiments in human stem cells.
The Vatican said his discoveries have spearheaded the creation of a new scientific field called evolutionary developmental biology. So-called "evo-devo" compares the developmental processes of different plants and animals so the ancestral relationship between organisms can be determined.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which includes several Nobel Prize winners among its members, advises the Vatican on scientific issues.

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