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Genetics: 'my fair lady' instead of the 'whore child of imperialism'

Sixty years ago, genetics, a young and promising branch of biology, was crushed. This was a disgraceful episode in the history of Soviet science, and the state in general.

Thousands of scientists and teachers were slandered and dismissed; books and scientific papers on genetics were withdrawn from libraries and burnt. It is now easy to denounce anything that happened in the Soviet Union, but Russia has inherited its legacy together with all its sins. It is more important to understand what happened and to repent it.

Speaking at a session of the All-Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences on August 7, 1948, "people's academician" Trofim Lysenko said: "Genetics is the whore child of imperialism... The current session has demonstrated the complete triumph of the progressive Michurinist direction over the reactionary-idealistic Mendelism and Morganism."

His attack on genetics was met with a stormy applause. Only a few people felt ashamed and bent their heads in despair. Genetics was condemned as a "false science," and disappeared from the horizons of Soviet science for a whole decade.

The session had been prepared in secret and its ideas had been orchestrated by the Kremlin with Stalin's participation. Academician Nikolai Dubinin, the leading Soviet geneticist, found himself in the center of the drama. He was subjected to destructive criticism, and it is surprising that he escaped the fate of academician Nikolai Vavilov, who was sentenced in 1943 and later died in one of Stalin's prisons.

Immediately after this disgraceful session, the laboratory of cytology and genetics, which Dubinin headed, was disbanded for its "anti-scientific position."

Nothing changed for the better after Stalin's death. The Kremlin's new boss, Nikita Khrushchev, did not recognize genetics, either. Meanwhile, the West was rapidly moving forward in genetic research.

For some time, Dubinin headed the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, which exists to this day. It was a team of geneticists and immunologists from the institute who recently created a plant with human genes that can accumulate cytokines, proteins critical to the human immune system. This achievement has made it possible to develop a vegetable-based protein preparation to boost immunity.

For a long time, society viewed genetics with suspicion. Yet, it eventually overcame the vicissitudes of fate. The prospect of becoming "vulnerable" because of the scientific gap left by genetics eventually compelled the Soviet leaders to revive research in this field.

In 1956, Dubinin was allowed to set up a laboratory of radiation genetics at the Institute of Biophysics, where he gathered all the unemployed geneticists he could find. It was in this lab that space genetics was born. Dubinin was among those who signed the paper licensing Yury Gagarin's space flight.

In 1966, academician Dubinin was "completely forgiven," and headed the Russian Academy of Sciences Vavilov Institute of General Genetics (IGG), which was to revive genetics in the country. At the same time, genetics began to be taught in universities, and international contacts were developed. In the 1970s-1980s, Soviet genetics entered a golden age, as the government showered geneticists with money and resources in a bid make up for lost time. The investment paid off, and soon they had caught up with their western colleagues.

In the early 1990s, genetics, with all other branches of science, suffered terribly as the country disintegrated and the system of government collapsed. Funding for the Human Genome project, at that point in full swing, was slashed. At the same time, huge funds were allocated for a similar American program. Russian scientists had to go abroad.

Today, thanks to a number of government measures, the financial hardships of the early 1990s are largely overcome. The IGG has not lost its position as a leading profile institution. Its 15 labs and research groups have launched large-scale research programs in molecular genetics, cytogenetics, phenogenetics, plant and animal genetics, population and evolutionary genetics, and radiation and space genetics.

Nikolai Yankovsky, IGG director and a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that his institute has achieved outstanding results in a computer analysis of genetic tests, discovery of disease causing genes, and bio-technology, as well as in understanding the causes of Alzheimer's disease. Russian geneticists have recently isolated the protein gene of a silk spider's web. This discovery will make it possible to produce a new material that could be used to replace disrupted tendons.

Yankovsky leads research into the genetic factors that contribute to alcoholism and the adaptation of man to traditional diets. For instance, modern Europeans are recommended to consume 70 grams to 100 grams of protein per day, whereas the usual diet of northern peoples (Chukchis and Eskimos) includes up to two kilos of meat from sea mammals. Digestion of such amounts of animal protein is only possible with a combination of certain culinary, physiological, and genetic factors. Researchers believe that there is a gene involved in the adaptation to an exclusively meat diet.

"We cannot change our genes, but we can create a better environment if we know what conditions gave rise to these or other variations in each individual's genetic code," Yankovsky explained.

Genetics is the foundation of modern biology. It raises ethical problems and helps resolve them, thereby defining the link between natural sciences and the arts.

"Without genetics, we will not be able to define man's place and potential in the modern world, or develop an optimal strategy for dealing with it that could guarantee the prosperity of current and future generations," said Professor Irina Goldenkova-Pavlova, IGG deputy director.

She spoke about the institute's research into methods of extracting the DNA from paleontological samples, which is carried out by Professor Yevgeny Rogayev's laboratory. Scientists have paved the way to reconstructing the genes of extinct animals by defining the structure of the mammoth's genome.

New advances in genetics are indispensable for forensic medicine, in which DNA analysis is of key importance. Before, Russia and the rest of the world used a standard DNA-based identification method. But it has a number of weaknesses, including errors in identifying gender and difficulties in analyzing degraded DNA. A new Russian system that uses a unique package of DNA markers will make it possible to remove these drawbacks.

"In everyday life, a host of factors may upset the structure and performance of the genes. These factors may cause cancer and hereditary diseases. The number is constantly increasing - new drugs, food products and cosmetics, to name but a few," the professor said.

Academician Sergei Inge-Vechtomov heads the institute's effort to develop a test system for evaluating environmental hazards that may damage genes or cause cancer. The main goal is to put an end to the use of new synthetic substances that have an adverse impact on the human genome.

Many hope that advances in genetics will lead to cures for life threatening diseases. That would require a full picture of ethno-genesis, which can only be painted if the function of each gene is known. This is the geneticists' Holy Grail.


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