Monday, 23 November 2015

Big in the Ukraine? Life Sciences in The Ukraine Past and Present

I have noticed with some interest that the audience for my Blog Posts has taken a turn for the East. In a manner similar to Tom Waites, who declared in one of his songs that he was "Big in Japan", or to the late Norman Wisdom, who was very, very big in Albania; my biggest readership currently comes from the Ukraine. And since, over the last 25 years, I have come to know and work with a number of Russian and Ukrainian scientists, I thought I would take a look at the Life Sciences in the Ukraine, past present and today. This is part of my lone campaign to increase the awareness of scientific pursuits around the world amongst students. I hope you find it as interesting to read as I have found it to write! And if you are interested in finding out more, my advice is to buy a copy of Geoffrey Smith's superb documentary "The English Surgeon" which relates the story of the relationship between the late career surgeon, Henry Marsh and the challenges of supporting clinical colleagues in the field of neurosurgery in the Ukraine. In my view, it is a masterpiece.

The first thing that surprised me, was that a year before I was born, the Ukrainian city of Odessa was twinned with Liverpool. Two great historic ports, with a shared history of wartime bombardment. Secondly, I was aware of the great tradition of Science in Odessa, but I hadn't connected George Gamow with Odessa. Gamow was an eminent physicist, who turned his mind to the challenges of Molecular Biology during the years shortly after Watson and Crick had published the double helix, and the race was on to crack the Genetic Code. [The term Genetic Code has come to be used to describe the information encoded by a genome, but as a traditionalist in such matters, I am using the Crick-Brenner definition which refers to the relationship between the sequences of bases in DNA and the unique sequences of proteins, in the form of amino acids.] Gamow's mathematical ideas have been quoted by Crick and others as incredibly influential during that golden age of Molecular Biology, when ideas, intellect and insight was in much greater supply than experimental technology! On a more whimsical note, Gamow, along with Watson and other leading lights of the day, formed a Molecular Biology discussion group, called the RNA Tie Club in 1954.

Four members of the RNA Tie club are shown on the left. Can you name them? I also like the tie design, which I believe was a responsibility of George Gamow. I think a separate post on the RNA Tie Club is in order for the future. In the meantime, back to the main topic of the post.....

The Ukraine has a population today of around 45 million and was a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (the CIS), but recent conflicts have led to a stand-off. In fact the Ukraine has been at the heart of conflict over the last two hundred years. Ukraine was a significant centre of culture, commerce and industry, in the Russian Empire, during the reign of the last Czars. It was the birth place of Leon Trotsky, an important "ideological" figure in the shaping and early days of the October Revolution. Perhaps the saddest part of modern Ukrainian history came in the early 1930s, when the Soviet led collectivisation of agriculture, forced Ukrainian farmers to meet impossible targets. Failure to meet such targets led to the withholding of grain supplies by the State. As a result it is believed that maybe as many as 10 million Ukrainians died of starvation.

During World War II, the Ukrainian people faced difficult decisions of national loyalty. Do we stand side-by-side with our Russian neighbours? Or do we support the fascist invasion by Nazi Germany. Following the dismantling of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century, Ukrainian independence was restored fully, but the Orange Revolution and the political divisions which pull Ukraine East and West continue to make life for ordinary Ukrainians a real challenge. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to imagine how a country with a population around the same as Spain could have produced some world leading Science and Scientists. However, the combination of a rich cultural heritage and a subsequent, shared commitment to prioritising and encouraging access to education in both the former Soviet Union and Ukraine today, has given the Ukraine an enviable platform on which to contribute some outstanding science and young scientists.

I haven't got time to name everyone, but in the field of Genetics, Theodosius
Dobzhansky (pictured right), and later George Gamow, spring to mind as pioneers of experimental evolutionary genetics and Molecular Biology, respectively. Theodosius Dobzhansky spent his first 27 years in the Ukraine, before leaving for the USA in 1927, some three years after the death of Lenin, during the Rykov administration. Prior to his departure from the Soviet Union, Dobzhansky worked in St. Petersburg with Professor Yuri Filipchenko, where together they brought progressive evolutionary thinking to the development of sophisticated Drosophila genetics, setting the stage for Dobzhansky to become one of the century's foremost evolutionary geneticists. The expression: "Nothing in Biology makes sense, unless in the light of evolution" is attributed to Dobzhansky, and is something I constantly realise when I am teaching Molecular Biology.

George (Georgiy Antonovich) Gamow, shown right, was born in Odessa in 1904. There is a nice summary of his career in Physics, Biology and Science Communication at the University of Colorado. Like many of the great minds that shaped the pioneering phase of Molecular Biology, Gamow's thinking was
rooted in Physics. Before considering the question of the Nature of the Genetic Code, Gamow had contributed significantly not only to particle physics, but also to astronomy and the "Big Bang" theory. In 1954, two years after Watson and Crick's landmark publication of the Double Helix, Gamow proposed that the "Genetic Code" was triplet. That is, given that DNA and RNA, contain 4 types of nucleotides whilst proteins, the major products of the genome (a term that came later), contain 20; it seemed likely that triplet combinations of these nucleotides (64 in total) would form the basis of translating nucleic acid language into that of proteins. You can read the original paper here, in which Gamow and Ycas discuss the probability of a triplet code. Subsequent work by many experimental Biochemists and Molecular Geneticists, have established that the Genetic Code is indeed triplet.

There are many other great names, including a particular favourite of mine, the Biochemist Jakub Karol Parnas, who with Embden and Myerhoff, laid the foundations for Glycolysis in the Metabolic Age of Biochemistry. However, space and time pressures are bearing down, so bringing us up to date in the Ukraine, I decided to search PubMed for papers with a Ukraine affiliation. I should say this is not a comprehensive analysis, but does give a reasonable indication of levels of activity and the quality of the work, using my own interpretation of the current  "standing" of journals through impact factors etc. Secondly, I noticed from the Blog site of (@IHS4LifeScience) in which the analyst Kavita Rainova pointed to a growing investment confidence in the Ukraine in the Life Sciences sector in 2013. A number of European and American Pharmaceutical companies were set to invest in manufacturing and R & D facilities around the Ukraine, in view of the substantial market for and appetite for better drugs. The more recent problems with the Health Care Sector may have important consequences for sustainable investment, but only the politicians can resolve this!

Ukraine has around 50 more Universities than the UK (just under 150), with a population that is around 20 million less. The Universities range from the Ancient (the Ostroh Academy) to Historic, including the National University of Kyiv-Moyhla Academy and Lviv University to the Universities that include Kharkiv and Kyiv with vibrant new programmes.
At the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics (IMBG) of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU), Professor Anna V. El’skaya leads a staff of nearly 500 scientists delivering an impressive research programme covering the areas of Structural and Functional Genomics, Proteomics and Protein Engineering, Molecular and Cell Biotechnology and Bioinformatics and Computational Modelling.