Today, genetics is moving to the forefront of research. Being able to control the ‘DNA programme’ which encodes information of all living organisms enables us to gain success in more ways than one: from growing highly nutritious plants to treating diseases that have been thought to be incurable. Igor Tikhonovich tells us about what St Petersburg University’s scientists have achieved in genetics, why genetically modified food is safe, and what spheres in the wide-ranging science of genetics are expected to be much in demand in future. Igor Tikhonovich is the Dean of the Faculty of Biology at St Petersburg University and President of the Vavilov Society of Geneticists and Breeders and a Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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Why do biologists worldwide focus particularly on how to obtain genetic data? Does it mean that biology is no longer a qualitative science, but a science based on quantitative observations?

Right from the very beginning, when Mendel discovered that there were relatively simple mathematical relationships in symbols that described the principles of inheritance, genetics has been an exact science. In other words, genetics has been using quantitative data from the very beginning. For example, we can describe variations between people in a phenotypical way, i.e. colour of eyes, form of a nose and face. Yet we can access variations in genetic information by calculating the number of nucleotides. The more genetics penetrates into biology, the more biology is becoming an exact science. Any sphere in biology is simply unthinkable without genetics. That is why biology is becoming more and more interrelated with genetics.

When did St Petersburg University’s scientists engage in genetics?

St Petersburg University is where genetics originated in Russia. In 1919, the University opened the Department of Genetics. It was the first one in Russia. Genetics has since been a priority for the University. Even when genetics was suppressed, the Department of Genetics at the University was still reading lectures. Yet the lectures were renamed, i.e. Critics of Morganism-Mendelism. Despite all the difficulties, the University managed to prepare outstanding researchers and scientists. A brilliant example is Sergey Inge-Vechtomov who was Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Biology, and Honoured Professor at St Petersburg University. The period of suppression was followed by a revival of genetics. In 1963, Mikhail Lobashev published a study book on genetics. Since then, genetics has been at the forefront of research at St Petersburg University.

What areas of research are well underway at the University?

Research in genetics at the University is incredibly diverse and wide-ranging. I will talk about just some of them. Let us take studying prions and ways of protein folding. A number of conditions, e.g. Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, are associated with abnormal protein folding. Abnormal protein folding leads to prions that have a stable structure and properties. These prions damage brain cells. This results in a loss of cognitive abilities and consequently in death. Today, there is no cure for these diseases. Yet scientists are well aware that the key reason behind these serious neurodegenerative conditions is prions, i.e. amyloids, or proteins that lost an ability to fold and consequently transform into strands that can lead to further misfolding and accumulation of other proteins. Interestingly, researchers at the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology at St Petersburg University for the first time have discovered these functional amyloids in a healthy brain. Presumably, we do need such a strange form of proteins. Gaining a better understanding of how amyloids work in a healthy body can help us find a cure for the diseases.

Recently, amyloids have been found in animals, bacteria, archaea, and even fungi...

Yes, they have. Scientists at the University proved that amyloids could be found in plants. Anton Nizhnikov, Associate Professor in the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology at St Petersburg University, focuses on the research in this area. He was taught by Sergey Inge-Vechtomov. Importantly, Stanley B Prusiner, who is the Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine 1997 for his discovery of Prions, cited the works by Sergey IngeVechtomov and his students.

Anton Nizhnikov and his colleagues proved that amyloids are typical to seeds. Presumably, nature invented this way of protein folding to preserve seeds for future planting. This is how proteins are stored for seeds to germinate and seedlings to start growing. These findings are published in PLOS Biology. There has been no research on plant breeding in terms of how nutrients are absorbed. Presumably, we are going to delve into how we can change nutritiousness and what role it might play. Evidently, being able to change the nutritional value of seeds may lead to better absorption of certain plants by our body.

How can the findings of scientists at St Petersburg University be used in agriculture, apart from growing highly nutritious plants?

St Petersburg University’s Professor Liudmila Lutova also focuses on genetics of plants. She has discovered new genes and regulators that help us estimate crop yields. There are CLE peptides, i.e. peptides largely known as regulators. They translate information about the plants. Liudmila Lutova and her colleagues discovered that some of these peptides could help us estimate the possibility whether radish would expand and develop roots into bulbs. Increasing the concentration of these protein molecules will definitely make roots develop into bulbs and have a pre-determined form.

There is evidence that bulbs grow meristem by adding tissue behind them. Meristem is about the active division of cells to form new tissue. We have to control how many and what cells are produced to ensure that the plant can grow further. Any leguminous plant has a certain capacity to develop a certain number of bulb meristems, which are responsible for delivering nitrogen, through photosynthesis. If there are many of them, a plant won’t be able to develop. If there are few of them, this can lead to poor and inadequate nitrogen fixation.

Such scientific discoveries provide evidence that there will be new breeding technologies. These technologies will underpin the next generation of breeding.

Such research projects are within the scope of the world-class research centre Agrotechnologies of the Future. The centre was opened by St Petersburg University and the other six leading research organisations in Russia. The centre is expected to promote research in agriculture at St Petersburg University. Agriculture, on a par with medicine, is at the core of biology today. Enhancing research in agriculture is only possible thanks to St Petersburg University’s Rector Nikolay Kropachev. He totally supports developing this field of research. Today, you can hardly do anything if you have no support from administration.

How does research in genetics contribute to implementing the aims of the consortium?

Today, we need to ensure good communication within the consortium. This will enable us to cooperate as a single group to promote a common interest, rather than to focus on independent projects. Among the most popular areas of research is developing a new technology for breeding rye. For the first time, scientists have focused on the content of flavonoids, i.e. secondary metabolites found in seeds that contribute to plant colour. Perhaps, you have noticed that rye seeds can greatly vary in colour: from white, green, red to violet colour. Flavonoids also determine the properties of plants that can affect our body. Therefore, being able to control their content will lead to designing functional food that is expected to have some preventive or therapeutic effect.

Developing GM technology, especially in agriculture, does cause concern among the public. What can scientists do in an effort to overcome this concern?

When it comes to biotechnology in agriculture, we mean genetic engineering and modifying the properties of plants to ensure that they can adapt to various conditions. In our country, there is no evidence-based opinion about how we can use genetically engineered products. For example, it is prohibited to use the seeds of genetically modified plants except in science. Yet we and lawyers from the University are preparing a number of proposals on how we can improve the law on how the products of genetic engineering can be used (Federal Law No 86-FZ ‘On the state regulation in genetic engineering’ dated 5 July 1996 (ed. 3 July 2016).

The law was adopted in 1996 when the methods of genetic engineering were far from being powerful and refined. Today, the situation is different. We have seamless technologies that allow genetic information to be joined so that no unwanted elements are added. Today, we need a nomenclature. We have to define such concepts as genetically modified organism and gene editing. Additionally, we have to adopt relevant laws. Medicine has long been using the products of genetic engineering. You can hardly think of insulin other than GM insulin. Yet there has been much concern about genetic engineering in agriculture. These problems are pressing and need to be solved. Inadequate legislation may impede introducing into our life the achievements of the centre ‘Agrotechnologies of the Future’.

Is bringing changes into the current legislation enough to make people less concerned about GM products being unsafe?

Apart from improving our legislation, we have to make it clear to the public that genetically modified organisms are safe for our health. St Petersburg University’s Professor Tatiana Matveeva showed that many of the plants that were considered to be cultivated were naturally occurring transgenic species. Among them are tobacco, toadflax, sweet potato, peanut, cranberry, hop, and tea. Genetic engineering is not a discovery made by humans, but natural processes that are safe for people.

What careers in genetics will be much in demand in the nearest future?

Primarily, bioinformatics. It focuses on mathematical methods in processing big data in genetics and close areas. Additionally, we have a relatively new direction in genetics, i.e. simbiogenetics. The University has developed a course in simbiogenetics that has no rivals. Simbiogenetics focuses on how the lowest organisms genetically interact with higher organisms. There is a close association between symbionts. This system is a new genome that is formed depending on the environment. It is amazing how plants are able to recognise bacteria to interact with among billions of bacteria. It is a fantastic ability to be so sensitive! It is important to choose the symbionts, not pathogens.

This is what the master’s programme in Molecular Biology and Agrobiotechnology of Plants at St Petersburg University focuses on. Each year, the programme has 10 graduates. Unfortunately, arranging practical classes is rather costly. Therefore, we can prepare 10 students at most. Yet the programme is much in demand. Hopefully, we will be able to sign a contract between the centre ‘Agrotechnologies of the Future’ and Research and Innovation Centre ‘Belgorod’. This centre needs higher calibre geneticists. Our academic staff will engage in teaching at Belgorod National Research University.

To sum it up, the Government has announced the opening of new state-of-the-art genetic laboratories. They need high calibre staff. Yet there are incredibly few of them. Therefore, there are two main problems we are facing now. First, how to prepare a sufficient number of specialists. Second, how to improve the current legislation.