July 22 is the 189th anniversary of Gregor Mendel's birthday. Why should I bother, one may ask? That’s not the question to raise, because experiments of this talented scientist opened doors to one of the most wonderful sciences in the world – genetics. A gifted biologist and at the same time a priest was born to the German family living in the Austrian Empire, now Czech Republic. Gregor Mendel formulated, in the course of practical experiments with plants, the laws of inheritance that subsequently became the basis of genetic science and appeared to be applicable to any living being, not only garden peas. Although his discoveries did not acquire a wide popularity in his lifetime, shortly after his death the hereditary laws were independently rediscovered by other scientists, and Mendel's findings were thus confirmed.
Mendel's scientific ideas have had a rather dramatic fate in Russia. Science itself was introduced to the Russian society by Peter the Great, while Catherine the Great had enforced the scientific development. Moscow State University, the realm of scientific thought, had opened in 1755. Already the 18th century had seen leading European experimental scientists working in Russia, and Russian researchers gaining experience and exchanging ideas in Europe. The ideas of Darwin and the recent developments in biology and genetic science were well known in our country, and Russian biologists were very strong – remember two Nobel Prizes in biology before 1910, which went to Ivan Pavlov and Ilya Mechnikov. At that time Russian merchants and businessmen made a difficult but right decision to support science financially, and Russian science began to bloom, until hard times of world war and October revolution struck. However, science was not destroyed by political fluctuations.
In 1917, the leading Russian biologist Nikolay Koltsov had founded the Institute of Experimental Biology, first in Europe and the only one non-educational institution in Russia, which performed research in all fields of biology. In 1921, 90 years ago, he also helped to organise the genetic laboratory within the Institute, thus creating the basis for the famous Moscow School of Genetics, where members were discussing problems of evolution and were required to be able to read academic literature in 3 languages. It was Nikolay Koltsov, who was the first to proclaim that “every molecule comes from a molecule” in 1927, which was definitely a prediction of DNA replication. In Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) there was another, no less famous, genetic school where taught Nikolay Vavilov, whose teacher was William Bateson, a world-known geneticist. Sadly, by the late 1930s many ground-breaking trends in science were halted by the advance to power of less scientifically versed, but more politically correct figures, like Lysenko. The latter successfully did everything in his capacity to stop the progress of genetic science for quarter of a century with simple to understand, but absolutely rubbish ideas.
Nowadays, genetic science in Russia has picked up its development. Prof. I. A. Rapoport discovered supermutagens, which tremendously increased mutation frequency; lately the studies of "jumping genes" in fruit flies grew in popularity, thanks to the lights they throw on mechanisms of evolution, like horizontal gene transfer. A tremendous contribution of the Russian science has been to the field of human genetics; however, some of the discoveries have taken decades to reach the academic community.
In the video in this link, Prof. Nina Fedoroff of the University of Santa Fe speaks of the changes occurring in the field of Heredity and Evolution, with references to the findings of Gregor Mendel.
Author: Anna Kizilova