Sergei POPOV, (c)
by Sergei POPOV, journalist
Nauka Publishers have produced the book "losif Abramovich Rapoport. 1912-1990" (Moscow, 2009) by Olga Stroyeva, Dr. Sc. (Biol.). It is devoted to the life and work of an outstanding geneticist, corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the author of a major biological discovery of the 20th century, the chemical mutagenesis.
Although almost 20 years have passed since his death, the interest in this scientist does not wane. During these years Nauka Publishers have printed two volumes of his selected works and a book of essays and recollections*, while the Kultura (Culture) TV channel has shown many times a documentary film about him. Now, another book is off the press, this time a science biography. Despite its compact edition, the author has managed to present both the main milestones of Rapoport's biography and pieces of his major
* See: K. Dyadkova, "losif Rapoport as He Was", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2002.–Ed.
works; the reader can appreciate their style, logic and thoughts.
Rapoport lived a life of hardships and dramatic changes–and achievements, too. Acquaintance with his life elicits a strong emotional response in everybody who is not indifferent to the cause of science. Why?
"I RUSHED TO READ KOLTSOV'S WORKS..."
The life histories of leading scientists show that they have made the first steps towards their future discoveries under the tuitorship of foremost scientists. His tutor was Nikolai Koltsov, elected corresponding member of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1916, the founder of the Institute of Experimental Biology (today the Koltsov Institute of Developmental Biology), who was the first to come up with the hypothesis of the molecular structure and template-guided reproduction of chromosomes (1928), one that anticipated the fundamental principles of contemporary molecular biology, and genetics. In 1932, when Rapoport was a student of the Chair of Genetics of the Biological Department at Leningrad University, Koltsov came to Leningrad from Moscow to lecture on the record of his institute. "Koltsov made an abiding impression on me," Rapoport recalled, "not only by his imposing appearance and eloquent and wise speech, but, first of all, by 〈...〉 the wholeness of his biological thought in whatever subject he touched upon, be it comparative embryology, cytology, genetics, evolutionary processes or physico-chemical problems of living matter. After that I rushed to read Koltsov's works and articles coming out of his institute...". In 1933 as a third-year student he started to work in the radiation genetics laboratory under a major American geneticist, Hermann J. Muller (foreign corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1933, a Nobel Prize winner, 1946), who was invited to our country for joint research by the outstanding biologist Academician Nikolai Vavilov*, head of the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences (today the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics).
"Nondisjunction of the Fourth and X-chromosomes in the Drosophila melanogaster under the Effect of X-rays" was Rapoport's graduation paper. Upon his graduation he took a postgraduate course at the Institute of Experimental Biology, at the genetics laboratory of Professor Nikolai Dubinin (elected to the national Academy of Sciences in 1966). The book cites Koltsov's opinions on the postgraduate Rapoport: "Exceptional linguist. Apart from the English, German and French languages he is familiar with the Latin, Hebrew, Italian and Swedish languages. His language fluency enables him to keep an eye on new scientific literature in most different fields. 〈...〉 He carries out experimental research in drosophila genetics quite independently, testing his numerous original ideas." The following year Koltsov said this: "He 〈...〉 needs but little direction; picks research subject by himself and does not shun advice of senior workers. 〈...〉 He prepares 500-700 experiments in succession and works thoroughly on them, while in similar work senior researchers confine themselves to 100-200 experiments." The phenogenetic cycle of works by the 26-year-old scientist was listed by Koltsov in his progress report for 1938 among the Institute's best achievements.
* See: V. Dragavtsev, "Serving the Common Good", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2003.–Ed.
In May 1939 Rapoport became a doctoral candidate upon defending his thesis on multiple linear repetitions of chromosomal sites and their evolutionary significance. The defense took place at the Institute of Genetics (headed up until 1940 by Nikolai Vavilov), with prominent geneticists Alexander Serebrovsky and Mark Belgovsky acting as opponents. In those years Rapoport wrote 19 articles, either published or in the press. In February 1941 at age 29 he completed work on his doctoral dissertation on phenogenetic analysis of dependent and independent differentiation. The defense was scheduled for June 28, 1941; but it did not take place, for on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and the Great Patriotic War began. Rapoport was among those who volunteered for the battlefronts.
THE FATAL FORTIES
Rapoport was a rifle battalion commander on the Crimea front, where he was badly wounded but upon convalescence returned to the ranks as a rifle battalion commander on the Caucasian front. From December 1942 to July 1943 he took a crash course at the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow. When Professor Serebrovsky learned about his stay in Moscow, he invited Rapoport to defend his doctoral thesis, which took place at Moscow State University on May 5, 1943. Thus, a military academy cadet became a Doctor of Biology. Exempt from military service, he got two job offers in Moscow at once. The first offer was from Vice-President of the USSR Academy of Sciences Academician Leon Orbeli* to get back to research work. The other offer was from the Frunze Military Academy to take up teaching. Rapoport declined both job offers and in summer 1943 was back in the ranks. Here's one episode described in Stroyeva's book and characterizing not only the bravery but also the military skills of her hero. "A patch of land on the low left bank of the Dnieper assigned to Rapoport's units for crossing was up against a steep slope of the right bank with a firing position of the enemy. The river crossing at this place inevitably meant enormous human casualties. After reconnoitering, Rapoport came upon another division, for which a broad area with a low and unprotected bank was allocated for crossing. With consent of its officer he moved here his units, and when the start command came, Rapoport's units cut across the Dnieper almost without casualties, though he could have been court-martialed for a wilful change of the crossing place. Surprised by a rear attack, the Germans left their pill-boxes and fled pell mell. This operation facilitated the actions of other units of our 62nd division which, chasing the enemy, built and fortified one of the right-bank bridgeheads of major tactical importance. Rapoport was awarded a Red Banner Order for the Dnieper crossing and establishing the bridgehead.
Later on Rapoport took part in combat actions in the western Ukraine and in Moldavia and Hungary. In December 1944 he was badly wounded again and lost his eye, but joined his regiment again even before convalescence. During the war he was thrice recommended for the top Title of Hero of the Soviet Union for courage and heroism and awarded many military orders and medals.
After his honorable discharge Rapoport resumed scientific work at his old research institute (now the Institute of Cytology, Hystology and Embriology of the USSR Academy of Sciences) and continued his chemi-
* See: Ya. Renkas, "The Orbeli Triad", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2002.–Ed.
cal mutagenesis experiments, i.e., according to Dubinin, "on causing mutations by chemical action. This research work was very successful. Rapoport proved that a number of chemical factors could cause gene variability as much as did doses of hard radiation energy". His first priority article devoted to the discovery of strong chemical muta-genes* was published in 1946 in the Proceedings of the USSR Academy of Sciences journal under the title "Carbonyl Compounds and Chemical Mechanism of Mutations", and was noticed in the West, as this journal was published, apart from Russian, also in two European languages until 1949.
All his plans were frustrated by the session of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL) in 1948, when its President Academician Trofim Ly-senko presented a program report "On the Situation in the Biological Science". Genetics was condemned as a pseudo-science and geneticists, as pseudo-scientists. Present in the hall, where the session was held, were mainly agricultural and medical officers and also agronomists supporting Lysenko's position and yes-men from VASKhNIL, like Academician Isaya Prezent and his ilk. A few scientists dared to raise voice in support of genetics, and Rapoport was among them. He got into the conference hall only thanks to his insistence, as the entrance was closely guarded, and he had neither a pass, nor an official invitation. Nobody obliged him to address the meeting, the more so as it was a risky undertaking fraught with most unpredictable consequences: he knew, how revengeful his opponents could be.
Nevertheless, he asked for the floor to vindicate the honor of his science. His speech was weighted, well-argumented and, as it appears today, almost six decades after, very persuasive. But the overwhelming majority of the audience were deaf to his arguments. As well as to the arguments of the Director of the Timiryazev Moscow Agricultural Academy Academician Vasily Nemchinov, President of the Belorussian Academy of Sciences Anton Zhebrak and VASKhNIL Academician Peter Zhukovsky (though the latter changed his mind during the session, but it is not up to us to blame him and other scientists who addressed the closing meeting with contrite words and support of Lysenko). As Rapoport recalled, he was allowed once more to address the meeting on the last day of the session, probably in the hope of his penitence. But he started again to argue in favor of genetics... The genuine science was mocked at in those days. But those who stood up in its defense and did not agree to a compromise, are worthy of highest respect.
The next nine years meant no less ordeal for Rapoport. In the same 1948 he was discharged from his institute, and the precious mutagenic lines of the fruit fly obtained at so much effort were destroyed. So were the published collected works of the Institute of Cytology, Hystology and Embriology with his doctoral thesis. Soon after, he was expelled from the Communist Party which he had joined at the front at the close of the war. Scrambling for a living, he had to take odd jobs that had little to do with his scientific profession; but he never abandoned his convictions and moral principles. At this time he conceptualized many of his theoretical
* According to Rapoport, strong (and moderate) chemical mutagenes include formaldehyde, alkyl carbamates, ethylene alcohol, etc.–Auth.
ideas, something that paved the way to the discovery of most efficient supermutagenes*.
Only in 1957, thanks to support from the director of the Institute of Chemical Physics of the USSR Academy of Sciences Academician Nikolai Semenov (Nobel Prize winner, 1956) Rapoport managed to return to genetics. He was admitted to the division headed by Nikolai Emanuel (elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1966) as a senior researcher specializing in physical chemistry of biological processes, and he worked there 33 years till his dying day. In 1965 he became head of the chemical genetics division of the institute. As Stroyeva has noted, Semenov hoped that Rapoport's research, promising to lay the genetic base of selection with the help of chemical mutagenes, could raise substantially the effectiveness of this sector of the national economy on a country-wide scale. As to selection proper, these hopes came true. The annual All-Union conferences on chemical mutagenesis with the participation of selectionists from different regions of the country were held on the basis of this institute. Rapoport was always in charge of such conferences. Productive cooperation was supported by practical work. Seed treatment was organized for plant breeders in one of the laboratories of the chemical genetics division. Later they sowed seeds on ground and isolated mutagenes, and thus got excellent breeds. Other conference participants took mutagenes on ice in vacuum flasks and treated seeds independently by the methods suggested by Rapoport. According to Natalia Eiges, Cand. Sc. (Biol.), a division member, "Rapoport provided such help free of charge, and it was, among other things, one of the main reasons for the wide and quick introduction of the chemical mutagenesis method into agriculture."
Plain figures attest to the scope of this work. By 1979 above 250 agreements were concluded between the Institute of Chemical Physics and agricultural research institutes actually in all republics of the USSR. As many as 125 new highly productive plant varieties demonstrated progress of such cooperative effort, among them spring barley, rice, oats, buckwheat, millet, maize, etc., a total of above 40 crop plants. By the beginning of the 1990s the number of new varieties already exceeded 350, and at least two thirds of them were zoned. It became clear that with the help of chemical mutagenesis one could obtain new varieties not in 20 years as before, but much faster, in 6-7 years. According to Eiges, by using the same method new high-efficiency strains of different industrial microorganisms were created, for one, producers of antibiotics, vitamins, enzymes, and feed protein. But Rapoport paid attention not only to the advantages of a wide use of man-made agents. In 1968 he was the first in the world to raise the question of dangerous uncontrolled chemicalization of agriculture for the human gene pool.
As Olga Stroyeva says in her book, in 1962 Rapoport became a Nobel Prize nominee together with the British geneticist Charlotte Auerbach for the discovery of the chemical mutagenesis phenomenon. This country's leadership was ready to support his candidacy on condition that he resume membership in the CPSU. But
* Among supermutagenes Rapoport named dimethyl sulphate, diethyl sulphate, dichloroethyl phosphorous acid, ethylene oxide, propylene oxide, sarin, soman, tabun, etc.–Auth.
despite all persuasions he declined the offer. As a result, one of the notable discoveries of the 20th century was bypassed by this most prestigious award.
But at home Rapoport's contribution came to be appreciated, though belatedly. In 1979 he was elected corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and in 1984, awarded a Lenin Prize (according to Olga Stroyeva, Rapoport divided the received cash bonus into 50 parts and handed them to his staff members); and in 1990 he merited a title of Hero of Socialist Labor...
As noted above, excerpts of his theoretical works hold a prominent place in Olga Stroyeva's book. One of them is his paper "Genetic Discreteness and Mutation Mechanism". Here the author develops the ideas which he brought out first in his monograph "Microgenetics". Published in 1965, its edition was destroyed for some reason. Rapoport's ideas in this and other works are quite nontrivial. He attempted to combine the ideas of genetics and biology with quantum physics, classical thermodynamics and physical chemistry, i.e. to outline ways of a consistent theory of the formation and development of the organic world. The author, Olga Stroyeva, hopes that natural scientists will go back to these ideas someday.
What are the lessons of Rapoport's life? They are simple and obvious. Today, as in the 20th century, honesty and clear conscience are a must for every scientist. In the 21st century, too, science wants people not just gifted in their field but also able to fight for truth even in adverse conditions and capable of bold, bona fide action.
Опубликовано на Порталусе 01 сентября 2021 года
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