Associate professors at St Petersburg University Kirill Antonets and Anton Nizhnikov became laureates of the 2020 Presidential Prize in Science and Innovation for Young Scientists. The prizes were awarded for the discovery of amyloid proteins in plants and symbiotic bacteria.

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Photo: Anton Nizhnikov and Kirill Antonets in the laboratory

Amyloids are proteins characterised by a fibrillar morphology that can cause dozens of severe conditions in humans and animals. Also, they are responsible for the storage of different substances. The study of these proteins is a very promising area of science, because it can enable the unlocking of many secrets about how living organisms function. Just several years ago scientists knew nothing about amyloids in plants, whereas now they know that these proteins are responsible for the ‘preservation’ of nutrients inside seeds.

Anton Nizhnikov is a candidate of biology, Associate Professor in the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology of St Petersburg University and Laboratory Head at the AllRussia Research Institute of Agricultural Microbiology. Kirill Antonets is a candidate of biology, Associate Professor in the Department of Cytology and Histology of St Petersburg University and Senior Research Associate at the All-Russia Research Institute of Agricultural Microbiology. They have been searching for amyloids in plants for several years. The research was carried out by the international scientific group headed by Anton Nizhnikov. The group consisted of representatives of St Petersburg University, the AllRussia Research Institute of Agricultural Microbiology, the Institute of Cytology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Biophysics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Kazan Federal University and the University of Burgundy in France. In 2017 the scientists managed to hypothesise the presence of amyloids in plants with the use of the previously developed algorithm by the method of bioinformatics. Last year they showed in an experiment that there are amyloids in the seeds of garden pea.

This award is not only a recognition of our collaborative work with Kirill Antonets and our colleagues, but it is also an acknowledgement of the work of outstanding Russian scientific schools that we represent.

Anton Nizhnikov, Candidate of Biology, Associate Professor in the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology of St Petersburg University and Laboratory Head at the All-Russia Research Institute of Agricultural Microbiology

‘The Department of Genetics and Biotechnology is the oldest department of genetics in Russia. In 2019 it celebrated its 100th anniversary. We became interested in genetics thanks to the lectures of the academic Sergey Inge-Vechtomov. We started working at the AllRussia Research Institute of Agricultural Microbiology because of our engagement in genetics of plant-microbe interaction — a crucial scientific field for agriculture, that has been developed for many years under supervision of Academician Igor Tikhonovich, Dean of the Faculty of Biology at St Petersburg University and Director and Academic Supervisor of the All-Russia Research Institute of Agricultural Microbiology. This year the Laboratory for Proteomics of Supra-Organismal Systems, which I head, celebrates its 130th anniversary. It is the combination of the unique experience and knowledge of these two major scientific schools as well as participation in the research of our colleagues from other organisations that allowed this research to be carried out,’ Anton Nizhnikov pointed out.

In future, this fundamental discovery will help scientists to increase the nutrition value of the seeds of plants and create less allergic varieties of beans. Another applied significance of the work is the future possibility to create plant varieties with super nutritious seeds. In order to achieve these goals, the scientists will have to study the feasibility of decreasing the levels of amyloids in seeds.

Our discovery opens perspectives for selecting seeds by completely new characteristics. The main aim will be decreasing the amyloid levels of seeds’ storage proteins with the purpose of increasing their nutrition value and decreasing their allergenic potency.

Kirill Antonets, Candidate of Biology, Associate Professor in the Department of Cytology and Histology of St Petersburg University and Senior Research Associate at the All-Russia Research Institute of Agricultural Microbiology

‘It is necessary to underline the importance of developing bioinformatics studies. It is by bio informatics methods, and with the help of the algorithm that we had created before, that we managed make our discovery — we found seeds’ storage proteins most prone to generating amyloids among all the plant proteins and demonstrated evolutionary conservatism of this trait, which is present in storage proteins of various plants. I am happy to emphasise that St Petersburg University pays a lot of attention to the development of education in the sphere of bioinformatics. For example, a master’s programme in this field has been recently launched,’ Kirill Antonets said.

The research was carried out with support of the Russian Scientific Foundation No 17-1601100. The experimental part of the work was performed with the use of equipment of the Research Park of St Petersburg University.

The presidential decree on awarding the prize to the scientists was published on 8 February, which is also the Day of Russian Science and the founding day of the University. At the press conference at the Russian News Agency TASS dedicated to these three events, Andrey Maksimov, Chairman of St Petersburg Committee for Science and Higher Education, congratulated the scientists with their honorary award. He pointed out that the government of the city also supports the young researchers: in 2017 Anton Nizhnikov became a laureate of the Leonhard Euler prize of the government of St Petersburg for outstanding scientific achievements in the field of natural sciences and engineering, whereas Kirill Antonets in 2020 was awarded a grant of the government of St Petersburg for research in the field of agriculture.

The government of St Petersburg and universities support the development of young scientists. This has positive results. We are very happy for our young scientists, who have won the most prestigious prize for young scientists in the Russian Federation.

Andrey Maksimov, Chairman of St Petersburg Committee for Science and Higher Education

Sergey Mikushev, Vice-Rector for Research at St Petersburg University, also delivered a speech at the press-conference. He said that last year St Petersburg University was one of the organisers of one of the first world-class research centres the ’Agrotechnologies of the Future’. ‘The centre was established at the end of 2020. We had been preparing to open it for a long time and had gathered leading experts in the fields of agriculture, biotechnologies and intellectual technologies to work on both fundamental and applied problems. We hope that the results of their collaborative efforts will be used in agriculture in the near future,’ Sergey Mikushev said.

Also, he added that today there are approximately 850 research groups at St Petersburg University. They carry out research work in 250 different fields. Sergey Mikushev pointed out that the results of the work of the scientists and scholars of St Petersburg University are published in prestigious international academic journals annually. Over the last few years, the number of publications has reached 15,000 articles per year.