Transition to a new industrial way of life
Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences — on the development of gene technologies in Russia
Nadezhda Alekseeva, RT
To increase the number of personnel in the field of genetic technologies, it is necessary first of all to introduce such specialization in Russian universities. In addition, it is important to provide opportunities for the practical application and commercialization of GM technologies in Russia. This opinion was expressed in an interview with RT by corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Director of the N.I. Vavilov Institute of General Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Kudryavtsev. Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the government to approve measures to train the necessary number of specialists in the field of genetic technologies. This industry will be of key importance for the industrial breakthrough, Alexander Kudryavtsev is sure.
— Alexander Mikhailovich, recently Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the government to approve a set of measures to form the necessary number of personnel in the field of genetic technologies by 2030. Why is there a shortage of such personnel and what needs to be done to change the situation?
— This situation has developed, firstly, because our universities do not even have such a specialization — "genetic technologies". This happened because gene technology is a new direction in science. Previously, we had such specializations as "biotechnology", "genetics", but still there is no specialization "genetic technologies". In many ways, this is why we do not have enough personnel in this area. Yes, there are a certain number of specialists in Russia, but these are mainly those people who initially studied in other specializations, and then received a post-university specialized education. It's just that science is developing rapidly, and the education system is not keeping up with it a little. We need new educational programs, we need a trained teaching staff to move the field of genetic technologies forward.
Actually, one of the goals of the federal program "Genetic Technologies", designed until 2030, is to train about 3 thousand specialists.
— Is there a discussion with universities about opening new departments to train such personnel?
— Yes, for example, we talked about this for a long time with the Dean of the Faculty of Biology of Moscow State University. The Academic Council of Moscow State University even approved one such program for the teaching staff earlier. I also know that there are similar educational programs in some centers, for example, in Kurchatov.
However, we are still not talking about the allocation of a separate specialty. Three years ago, we addressed this issue to the Minister of Education (then this post was held by Mikhail Kotyukov). But the introduction of a new specialization is associated with great difficulties — it is necessary to introduce new standards, prepare educational programs, as well as people who will be able to teach students. All this takes a lot of time.
— How noticeable is the shortage of personnel in the field of genetic technologies in Russia?
— There are different interpretations of the concept of "genetic technologies". Even the federal program adopted earlier interprets this concept quite narrowly, in my opinion. The narrow meaning implies by genetic technologies only genome editing, genetic engineering. At the same time, in Russia, gene editing in open systems is generally prohibited.
— What does it mean?
— For example, you can grow genetically modified organisms in a reactor, in a laboratory, you can make some medicines there. But it is impossible to grow such an organism in the field. Therefore, we do not have an acute shortage of such specialists yet — they are not very in demand.
However, there are other areas of genetic work. For example, there is genomic, marker selection — these are also genetic technologies. And there are also few such specialists in Russia, although large businesses are looking for such employees.
There is a Western economist — Klaus Schwab. You can disagree with him on many issues, but one thing he says is true: the fourth industrial revolution is coming now. It will be based on biotechnology, as well as information technology.
It is easy to see that information technology has already taken a mainstream position in our country, the same will happen with genetics. And for the transition to a new industrial way of life, we will need a whole army of specialists.
— For which industries can gene technologies become breakthrough? For example, everyone knows about the demand for such technologies in agriculture and medicine. What other areas are the most promising today?
— These directions are already prescribed in the federal program. These are agriculture, medicine, industrial biotechnologies. Prombiotech is, in fact, the cultivation of useful substances, organic matter in reactors thanks to genetically modified microorganisms.
The turnover of this sphere in the world now reaches hundreds of billions of dollars, it will soon reach 1 trillion, probably.
Another area that should be noted is biosafety. We understand that in our time it is impossible to exclude acts of biological terrorism and the use of biological weapons, so it is important to be able to resist such threats. And for this we also need specialists.
— The second topic flows smoothly from the first: the President also instructed to create a mechanism for the rapid introduction of applied results of activities in the field of genetic technologies into industrial production, in particular, by attracting industrial partners at the early stages of development. How willing is Russian business to invest in the field of genetic research?
— Willingly, although it is necessary to look at what kind of business we are talking about. For example, I recently spoke at the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, and invited a representative of a large Russian agricultural holding there. And he said something that seemed iconic to me: that the company will be engaged in genetic technologies in any case. If the current restrictions are not relaxed in Russia, the business will simply move its activity abroad.
It is already clear that we are talking about a super-profitable industry. And in my opinion, we have excessively strict requirements for ensuring security. As a result, the cost of production even in prombiotech is very high. And this negatively affects the competitive positions of Russian goods.
If we take, for example, medicines, now a lot of medicines are being made with the help of genetic technologies. A striking example is coronavirus vaccines, many of them are the result of genetic engineering.
— What else hinders the development of genetic technologies in Russia?
— There are many obstacles, these are bureaucratic issues related to the higher education system, and the lack of an up-to-date legislative framework. By the way, we do not have a law on genetic technologies, the law that was adopted in 1996 affects only genetic engineering. 25 years have passed since its adoption — a huge period for science. But the legislation has not been radically revised over the years. Although such a need is long overdue.
Fortunately, now the country's leadership has an understanding that legislation needs to be changed, legislative barriers should be gradually removed. However, this should be done carefully, there are a lot of social myths and fears around GMOs. Although the history of GMOs in the world has been going on for about 50 years and all the accumulated experience suggests that conscientiously created GMO products do not pose any threat.
At the same time, such technologies can also be used by intruders to cause harm. Therefore, of course, control is needed, this idea is adhered to by the Council for Genetic Engineering of the Russian Academy of Sciences. However, it is the final product and its qualities that need to be controlled, and not the methods themselves should be prohibited.
Moreover, in some cases we cannot even accurately check whether genomic editing was present at all. So the current bans on such activities do not make much sense.
For example, the result of genetic editing of a plant may look like the result of a natural natural process.
— That is, it is not always possible to even understand whether the plant was genetically modified?
— Yes, it can be accurately determined only by transgenes, when foreign inserts are made into the genome, the genes of other organisms. This is an old technology, but now there is genetic editing, when you can not insert a new gene, but simply make your gene, the same plant or animal, work differently. And such changes can be made by nature itself.
— What role do purely bureaucratic moments play for the industry, and what kind of distrust that ordinary people feel about the topic of genetic engineering? In Russia, since Soviet times, there has been a distrustful attitude towards genetics…
— Not least hinders the fact that people do not go into this field, because they do not see opportunities for practical, commercial application of their knowledge. A lot is being done in science now with co-financing with business. And business does not want to invest in genetic development, because they cannot be put into practice later — if we are talking about plants and animals.
In addition, GMOs are afraid of consumers who are looking for products with the inscription "GMO-free" on the shelves today. However, often these inscriptions are fiction. In some cases, this is written on products that cannot contain GMOs in principle: sugar, for example.
People need to be educated, because in the end we will all be forced to use these technologies in our lives anyway. And even now it is already happening. For example, I add soy to a lot of products, which is mainly supplied from abroad and mostly genetically modified.
— Similar bans are in effect in a number of EU countries. What were the rational grounds for the introduction of such measures in Europe and Russia at the time?
— There are many moments here. These laws were adopted quite a long time ago, when GMO products were still insufficiently studied. In addition, Europeans are characterized by traditionalism, they do not want to change their habits and can afford it.
— At the same time, many EU countries subsidize agriculture....
— Yes. In general, there is no such powerful, competitive agriculture in Europe. But if you look at the example of the most populated, large countries of the world, then GMO technologies are allowed in them. These are China, America, Brazil, Argentina, India… Sometimes it seems to me that the ban on GMOs in Europe could have been lobbied by global producers of such products and seeds in order to maintain their monopoly. In fact, now only a few large multinational companies are engaged in such deliveries. And this is a very profitable business, because farmers buy not just seeds, but a whole technology, including special herbicides, etc.
— That is, in principle, it is necessary not to let foreign manufacturers enter your market, but to create your own technologies?
— Yes, do everything so that you don't have competitors. And now more and more players are pulling into this market, the monopoly will not last long. For example, Argentina has made GMO wheat resistant to drought. And if, for example, Egypt used to buy a lot of Russian grain, now it cannot be ruled out that the country itself will start growing it.
— Is there a threat from GMO varieties to the biological balance? For example, if such resistant plants disperse far beyond the farmers' fields and begin to displace common species? As it turned out with the hogweed at the time, although it is not a GMO plant.
— This is already a question of invasion. This role can be played not only by a GMO plant, but also by any invasive plant in general — as happened with the hogweed. And now, for example, goldenrod, an American invasive plant, is growing everywhere — just no one pays attention to it. Moreover, if we are talking about a genetically modified plant, then when creating it, you can always embed a "switch" in case something goes wrong.
— The topic of legal regulation of genetic research is actively being discussed now. In autumn, the head of state proposed to "clearly define the limits of permissible use of genetic technologies." Where, in your opinion, does this line run?
— There are a lot of facets that have yet to be established. For example, in the future, everyone will know their genome. Is this personal data? How can they be used? And insurance companies — and many others - will surely start hunting for this data. Meanwhile, legislation on the genetic certification of people is being developed. Where will this data be stored?
— Usually people are very concerned about the topic of editing the human genome. For example, in China, one researcher has already edited the genome of twin girls… Is it possible to conduct such experiments?
— Now there are a lot of people with congenital mutations that manifest themselves in the form of a particular disease. Initially, they manifest themselves in a hidden form in the parents, and then a sick child is born to them. I think that in the future it will be possible to correct these defects even at the level of the egg. And then a healthy baby will be born.
Another direction is the treatment of oncopathology. It is already clear that cancer has a genetic basis, which means that it needs to be fought with the help of genetic technologies.
There are also cellular technologies, the cultivation of artificial organs. For example, if we learn how to grow a heart valve from stem cells, it would solve a lot of problems. And this is also genetic technology.
— What promising research is being conducted today at the N. I. Vavilov Institute of General Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences? And what developments are waiting for their implementation?
— We have a lot of them. For example, we have now completed the DNA identification program for the Union State of Russia and Belarus. The development is carried out in the interests of criminologists — the fact is that DNA can determine where a person comes from. The program began after the terrorist attack in Domodedovo. No one knew where the criminal came from, who he was... the criminologists took the biological material of the terrorist and handed it over to us, by that time we were conducting genetic and population studies of a person. After the analysis, it became clear which region and even village this person was from. An investigative team went there immediately, and within three days they found his relatives and acquaintances. The crime was solved.
For example, a serial maniac was later found using DNA in Novosibirsk — it was possible to establish the ethnicity of the criminal. This made it possible to narrow down the circle of suspects.
We have developed special investigative and forensic kits for the UK, which were previously purchased abroad. And we managed to create a much more accurate and sensitive instrument.
Another recent achievement of ours is that we have bred a breed of silver sable, with a unique color of fur. His skins are now being sold at auctions for fifteen hundred euros apiece.
In addition, our microbiological laboratory found FN3 protein in bifidobacteria, which is of medicinal interest for the prevention of respiratory diseases. Genes synthesizing this protein were isolated from bifidobacteria.
We are also actively working on sugar beet. After all, Russia produces few of its own seeds. For example, until recently, only 2% of sugar beet seeds were produced in the country, 98% were imported. In partnership with the business, we managed to create an interesting line of solutions. Now we can provide up to 20% of the Russian market with seeds. We are engaged in genomic breeding with another large Russian agricultural holding.
— What is this technique?
— I'll explain now. Traditional breeding is selection by phenotype. However, it often depends on external conditions, conditions of maintenance and cultivation. And it is possible to conduct such selection not by phenotype, but by genotype, by the potential that is laid down. This is a very effective method, although it has its own difficulties — you need to have genetic information for selection. We analyze the materials that breeders collect in the fields and give recommendations. Classical selection of many things is already almost impossible to achieve.
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