Libmonster ID: BY-1569
Author(s) of the publication: Mark MOKULSKY

by Mark MOKULSKY, Dr. Sc. (Phys. & Math.), Institute of Molecular Genetics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow

The chief cause of his life was involvement in creating the nation's nuclear shield to make our country defend herself against the deadly danger of the late 1940s. For all his multifarious interests and activities calling for enormous application and effort, he, Anatoly Petrovich Alexandrov (AP), was among the founding fathers of molecular biology studies in the Soviet Union. We ought to remember that, though molecular biology might look as a sideline for AP. But it was not.

Now let us think back to the "hot", hectic times of the 1950s, as the nation went on an all-out effort to advance her nuclear science and industries. AP was snowed under with work: nuclear reactors and power stations, icebreakers and submarines, aircraft driven by nuclear engines (there were projects like that!), and lots of other things unknown to us yet; all that taxed his energy. This was his forte and line of responsibility. In those days the notion of responsibility had a different dimension. The powers that be put pressure on him, sure; but he was well aware that the very history of his country depended on his success.

In this extraordinary, touch-and-go situation, something else caught Alexandrov's attention: a new science, molecular biology, was born in the world. So AP felt like taking up this job, too...

Addressing the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1956, Anatoly Alexandrov urged the Academy's president, Alexander Nesmeyanov, to report to the government about the disastrous situation in national biology and in rearing research personnel for it. This address had no overt consequences to him and, well conscious of the national significance of this problem, AP did not desist from his efforts in pleading this cause.

Igor Tamm, a great physicist, one of the makers of the Soviet hydrogen bomb who was among the masterminds of the national thermonuclear program, played a great part in rekindling the interest in molecular biology. He organized a science seminar at the Atomic Energy Institute where Soviet biologists (some of them out of work for their interest in "Mendelism-Morganism*) could speak up,

* The name hung by adherents of "Michurin biology" (a pseudoscientic line advocated by Acad. Trofim Lysenko, president of the VASKHN1L Agricultural Academy) on classical genetics branded as a "reactionary fake science". This label comes from the names of the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) and the American biologist Thomas Morgan (1866-1945; Nobel Prize, 1933), the founders of present genetics. Ivan Michurin (1855-1935), an eminent Russian selectionist, plant- and fruit-grower famous for his crossbreeds.--Ed.

стр. 59

proceeding from foreign materials, on nucleic acids, DNA double helix, protein structure and the like.

The bag lag of our biology was obvious. Yet the ruling communist party and the government were thumbs up for Lysenko and his "science", they curbed the other-minded. Even Acad. Igor Kurchatov*, the Number One nuclear physicist, was in for a dressing-down from Nikita Khrushchev for meddling.

A pretty kettle offish! Lots has been said about Joseph Stalin, "the great leader of all times and peoples", at the helm of Soviet government up until 1953. He was thought to be efficient in that he fulfilled his goals in sheer disregard of the means. He could even league with the devil and adopt whatever could bring success; he perceived the strategic importance of nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles and mobilized all resources toward this end, and that in a war-devastated country. But somehow he came to hate the word "gene", the very notion of it, and everything that went with it, and he put the kibosh on it. A normal human being in his right mind would never think of declaring genetics "ideologically wrong" and start uprooting it in every way possible. Yet even in those days this science was obviously useful for farming and medicine. Genetics had nothing to do with politics, it was not allied to philosophical idealism. How could it happen that a bunch of crooks with Lysenko at the head had duped "the great leader", a tough pragmatist who never trusted anyone. It is odd indeed that Nikita Khrushchev, who exposed the Stalin "cult of the individual" ("personality cult") and denounced Stalin exactly for that, went on with the witchhunt of geneticists. Some will explain such fixity by poor education--that's true; but poor education did not keep the hunters to make reasonable decisions on other crucial problems, in science, too. Why and wherefore? We shall never get the answer.

See: R. Kuznetsova, V. Popov, "Scientific Heritage of Academician Kurchatov", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2012.--Ed.

Today we cannot help and wonder: that even in the late 1950s molecular biologists had to lie low and not disclose their real objectives to government officials. Even the Academy of Sciences of the USSR wielding a lot of clout--so much so that men in power had to reckon with it in many ways--even this powerful institution was unable to set up openly an Institute of Molecular Biology in 1959 and had to resort to a coverup--this research body appeared under the name of "Institute of Radiation and Physicochemical Biology".

But back to the year 1956. Though rebuffed, the nuclear physicists did not give up. In 1958 AP, in cahoots with Kurchatov, drafted a party and government decision for the CPSU Central Committee and USSR Council of Ministers dealing with work "in the field of biology and radiobiology related to problems of nuclear engineering." Delegated to the Ministry of Medium-Machine Building (Minsredmash, a top secret body, formerly the special government committee responsible for the national nuclear project), this document pursued but one goal: "Pool the efforts of physicists, chemists and biologists in studying biological processes"--in short, launch molecular biology research.

A good cornerstone it was. The same year, in 1958, the Institute of Atomic Energy (IAE) began setting up laboratories actually involved with research in molecular biology. An order was issued on establishing a Radiobiological Department (RBD) and putting up two buildings for it. Here we should say a kind word in memory of Yefim Slavsky, the then Minister of Medium-Machine Building, who gave his vigorous support to the undertaking--on tips from Kurchatov and Alexandrov, of course. A premier physicist, Viktor Gavrilov, was the first chief of that laboratory--a scientist who merited four Stalin prizes, and who had worked under Yuli Khariton*,

See: A. Vodopshin, "On a Visit to Khariton", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2009.--Ed.

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the designer of the Soviet first atomic bomb. Gavrilov was an excellent organizer well conversant with the "red tape" of science, a selfless, dedicated man. Working as laboratory heads were the geneticists Sos Alikhanyan, Roman Khesin, Yuri Lazurkin, Kiril Mikhailov and Solomon Ardashni-kov, the only radiobiologist among them. The targets of their research included applied genetics and selection of microorganisms as well as basic studies in the field of enzymology of genetic processes, bipolymer physics, cytology... With the works in radiobiology and radiation physics completed, the RBD laboratory became active as a molecular biology institution in the early 1960*, and in 1965 it called its first scientific conference.

Setting up the BRD laboratory, AP feared someone might be tempted to "plunge into pure science", and so he was persistent in pushing his program through: there should be hands-on research subdivisions within its structure.

We might mention two. One gave rise in 1978 to the Research Institute of Genetics and Selection of Industrial Microorganisms within the GLAVMIKROBIOPROM corporation specializing in the industrial production of microorganisms. The other subdivision dealt with designing methods for the production of tagged substances for research and medicine. AP caught on this idea of Gavrilov's to start their production at BRD, and in 1961 the nation's first setup was built for a tritium labeling of biological preparations. Other facilities were supplied, too. AP often visited the laboratory and gave it material and moral support. In the last 50 years it has produced hundreds of tritium-tagged biological compounds and subcellular structures. The laboratory expanded its range of research through physiologically active compounds, which are of great pharmaceutical value, and their synthesis. Furthermore, the laboratory turned to production and deliveries of high-tech drugs of the 21st century on the basis of peptides.** Today these works have gained world renown and are a welcome addition to the budget of the RAS Institute of MolecularGenctics. (Since 1972 Acad. Nikolai Myasoyedov has been in charge of its research collective.)

Yet the early 1960s were not cloudless for BRD either. It was in bad need of up-to-date devices and reagents and that meant hard currency above all. But it was difficult to get it from the stingy Minsredmash, still wary of the overtly "grass-roots" research collective. BRD needed constant support, and AP gave such support. Otherwise BRD would have gone out of existence soon.

Yet another attempt was made in 1965 and 1966 to rebuild (from within, strange as it might seem) BRD along radiotechnical lines. But AP was not caught off guard, he took decisive steps, and BRD kept its molecular biology countenance.

There came change. The "dark forces" cracking down on geneticists were gone. New molecular biology research

See: S. Kostrov, V. Tarantul, "Hard Paths of Molecular Genetics", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2008.--Ed.

** See: N. Myasoyedov, "The Effect of Seven Aminoacids", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2008.--Ed.

centers were making their appearance countrywide. It made no sense for BRD to stay any longer within Minsredmash for sheer security reasons, and in 1970 AP decided to upgrade the status of this department/laboratory, and make it a regular research center under the auspices of the national Academy of Sciences. At first he suggested the name for the new center--Institute of Molecular Fundamentals and Virusology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. But taking a hard second look at the Russian abbreviation, IMOGIVAN, AP changed his mind and came up with another name, Institute of Molecular Genetics, one that still holds on.

Alexandrov got down and wrote a letter to Premier Alexei Kosygin. It took AP just 20 minutes to do that. Then came burocratic drags, for as many as fourteen visas from various agencies were needed. AP was a man of consequence, a VIP on a national scale, and so no one dared to refuse outright. We obtained a preliminary approval from all those concerned, even though the solicitation rubbed them the wrong way. Be that as it may, the top agencies were not against: in formal terms the State Committee of the USSR Council of Ministers for Science and Technology, Department for Science of the USSR Council of Ministers, the Khoroshevo Moscow District Committee of the Communist Party, Department of Biochemistry of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and so forth. We went through a lot of rigmarole. And in October 1975 came the decision: the government administration informed us "with satisfaction" that it was not advisable to set up a research institute, and the case

стр. 61

was written off into archives. Period! Yet the fates decreed otherwise: the following day (what a freak of chance!) we learned the big news--AP would soon become president of the Academy of Sciences. And he did! The cogwheels of the state machinery started moving and quite soon--in just eighteen months or so--our Institute saw the light. "I hope, God forbid, things wouldn't get worse," AP said at parting.

Sailing off from the shores of the almighty Minsredmash, the young research collective landed in the company of other newcomers, though with a bit of "academic" experience in the fold of the Academy of Sciences, and short of funds, too. We could wither away had it not been for AP, wise both in science and engineering, and in administrative self-defenses. As president of the national Academy of Sciences, he dictated a historic (to our collective!) joint decision of Minsredmash and Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences on June 1, 1977, about the transfer of BRD to the Academy as Institute of Molecular Genetics. We kept both of our offices and the right to use the services of the Institute of Atomic Energy (IAE), from the medical clinic and eatery down to the computing center and workshops. At first IAE made several abortive attempts at "seizing" the two buildings from us; it failed for it could not violate the wise Joint Decision. We developed relationships of full understanding and friendship with the Kurchatov Institute, our Big Brother, and shall be always grateful to it for loving care and attention.

In this new 21st century the RAS Molecular Genetics Institute is going ahead with fundamental and applied problem solving, even though many of our nurslings-research personnel of active, productive age settled down far and wide, from former Soviet republics and now independent states to New Zealand. Well placed, they are working for the good of world science.

Molecular biology that attracted so much AP back in the 1950s was in for a great future. It has changed medicine and the farming industry, and in many ways has profiled the 21st-century civilization. We are seeing this great change. The achievements of molecular biology are staggering indeed. It has pried into the microworld of structures and processes all the way from angstrom to micron (atom to cell), as good as a terra incognita 60 years ago--a kingdom where most thrilling biological metamorphoses are taking place. Hereditary information and protein synthesis were seen as the principal targets of biology, the life science. The mechanisms implicated in these processes have been studied and described in much detail since then. It would be just to get them into the Standard Model of the World constructed by physicists and astronomers by the close of the 20th century. So far there is no room for the concept "life" in the model. Yet it would be not much to say that the gnosiological, knowledge-related significance of discoveries made by molecular biology in the 20th century are comparable to astronomical achievements combining into the present-day picture of the Universe.

Molecular biology has great practical prospects in its bag. Huge money is being shelled out for basic and applied research in it. Networks of firms have been created, and so have been all the various high technologies. One is out to publicize such intriguing (and frightening!) things as cloning and gene-modified products. Yet there is something that biologists have up their sleeve.

As a thinker Anatoly Alexandrov understood the rerum natura directly, as it is the phenomenon of life is the greatest and most intimate enigma to all of us. AP thought molecular biology to be a straight path toward unraveling the riddle of life as a physicist sees it; he spoke of a theoretical biology based on the physics of atoms and molecules. But he understood that the time was not ripe yet for a model like that.

Alexandrov was all out for cooperation of science with industry and armed forces. Now and then I happened to be next to AP in his office during his telephone talks with top military chiefs (say, chief of the army staff). They used the jargon--"article", "product" and so forth for military hardware. I could guess the subject of their talks all right, the scope of problems and outlays. I hated to butt in with yet another request of mine, I felt like slipping out of his office and not divert the attention of the busy statesman to the modest needs of molecular biology.

AP was also a good educator in a broad sense. His broad mind, selfless dedication, responsibility and noble, decent ways were a fine example to those who rubbed shoulders with him.

AP merited a great number of awards and distinctions--probably as many as crowned rulers and great generals. Although top awards have now been downgraded somewhat in value, his portrait in full dress with all regalia is imposing and inspirational to those knew him. A real epic hero bestowed to tokens of gratitude of this and other countries. Shall we ever see heroes like that?!

Illustrations from the archives of the laboratory of scientific-technical photography of the Kurchatov Institute and Alexandrov family archives

 


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Mark MOKULSKY, REBIRTH OF THE NATION'S GENETICS // Minsk: Belarusian Electronic Library (BIBLIOTEKA.BY). Updated: 31.10.2021. URL: https://biblioteka.by/m/articles/view/REBIRTH-OF-THE-NATION-S-GENETICS (date of access: 04.12.2021).

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