Mikhail Gelfand: "Everyone who screams about the terrible harm of GMOs is responsible for blind children in Asia"

Mikhail Gelfand: "Everyone who screams about the terrible harm of GMOs is responsible for blind children in Asia"
Mikhail Gelfand: "Everyone who screams about the terrible harm of GMOs is responsible for blind children in Asia"

What is bioinformatics? Why is cloning mammoths an outright hoax? Who, in fact, benefits from spreading the myth about the dangers of GMO foods, and why, thanks to the global resistance of diseases to antibiotics, we are returning to the beginning of the 20th century? We talked about this and many other things with Mikhail Gelfand, an outstanding Russian bioinformatist, professor at Moscow State University and a member of the European Academy.

Mikhail Gelfand

Mikhail Sergeevich Gelfand - famous Russian bioinformatist, Doctor of Biological Sciences, Candidate of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Professor of the Faculty of Bioengineering and Bioinformatics at Moscow State University, member of the European Academy, Deputy Director of the Institute for Information Transmission Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, member of the Public Council under the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, Deputy Editor-in-Chief the newspaper "Troitsky Variant - Science".

Research interests: comparative genomics, metagenomics, metabolic reconstruction and functional annotation of genes and proteins, search for regulatory signals, evolution of metabolic pathways and regulatory systems, alternative splicing (a process that allows one gene to produce several mRNAs and, accordingly, proteins - NS), statistical features of DNA sequences.

Mikhail Gelfand is also known for his civic activism. He is one of the founders and activists of the Dissernet network community, which is engaged in identifying abuses, fraud and forgery in the field of dissertation defense and awarding academic degrees in Russia.

Mikhail Sergeevich, what is bioinformatics?

- Bioinformatics is a way of doing biology that requires processing a very large amount of data. In general, the same thing is happening with biology that once happened with high-energy physics and with astrophysics, when there was a lot of data.

It turns out that using all this information, you can do a lot of interesting things.

For example, what we are doing now is predicting the functions of proteins, studying how genes are regulated, etc. This is done using sequence analysis, and the result is formulated in terms that are natural for biologists: say, this protein does this and that, and this the gene turns on under such and such conditions.

In addition, thanks to bioinformatics, it became possible to make statements about the cell as a whole. In a sense, molecular biology used to be a reductionist science - one looked at a cell piece by piece, decomposed it into separate genes, individual proteins. Now it has become possible to study it entirely at the molecular level. Before that, we could not do this - there were not enough opportunities.

But all this is the technical side of bioinformatics.

The fundamental side is the study of molecular evolution. It turned out that comparing the genomes that we have now, we can say something about how they changed over time. Roughly speaking, how did it happen? This is probably the most interesting thing about bioinformatics.

Can you name the most important, in your opinion, achievements in the field of bioinformatics in recent years?

- For example, it became clear that multicellularity occurred not once, but several times independently.When I was taught at school, I was taught this: first there were bacteria, then more complex creatures appeared, then multicellular, etc., mushrooms with algae were considered lower plants. Now it turned out that in plants and animals, multicellularity arose independently from the point of view of their evolutionary paths. The mushrooms turned out to be even closer to us than to the plants. Brown algae generally drove off in the other direction, they also developed multicellularity in their own way.

They also discovered that our ancestors hybridized with Neanderthals. It turned out that there were also Denisovans - distant relatives of the Neanderthals. On the whole, this situation has shown that the emergence of modern man is a much more complex issue than it seemed to us earlier. After all, we thought that our ancestry was a continuous branch, a line. However, the analysis of genomes showed that 50 thousand years ago three different species of people walked across Eurasia - Cro-Magnons (we and our ancestors), Neanderthals and Denisovans, and they all interbred with each other in different combinations.

In the genome of every modern European or Asian (but not African), on average, about 2% of gene variants are Neanderthal genes, and people who once settled in Indonesia and Australia have an additional 5% of Denisovan genes.

These discoveries are important from a worldview point of view - they change our understanding of how a person arose.

In general, with the emergence of new experimental techniques, we learn more and more new, but it turns out that we still do not know a lot. There is a growing understanding of how much remains to be discovered. In a sense, this is a romantic time.

On this occasion, I always tell the same metaphor. Imagine, people lived on the shore, they thought it was a small island. Because of the haze, he was not visible. When the haze cleared, it turned out that there was a whole continent. Moreover, with mountains, beyond which it is not at all clear what can be found. The situation is approximately the same in modern science.

What progress has been made in the field of cancer genomics in recent years?

- Achievements were, again, thanks to technological progress. We learned to determine the genomic sequence of tumor-healthy tissue pairs, and to understand why a healthy cell became tumor. It turned out that there is no single reason, and even at first glance, the same cancer cells have a number of differences. In particular, due to mutations, of which there are a lot in these cells.

A non-trivial task appeared - to understand which mutations were the cause of the process, and which ones just happened by chance. Experiments are now beginning to sequence triplets - healthy cell, cancer and metastasis - to determine what leads to metastasis.

Today we have learned to sequence the genomes of single cells. With regard to cancer, there is reason to believe that the cell population of this disease is very heterogeneous, and the development of cancer occurs due to mutations that lead to the displacement of some populations by others. The sequencing of individual cancer cells will help to improve understanding, so the results of these experiments are expected by many with interest.

But in fact, I don’t really like to talk about oncology - I don’t want to give people hope in vain. I will only repeat what I have already mentioned: cancer can be heterogeneous - this can explain the success or failure of one or another treatment. There may be a different situation - tumors in different parts of the body, but with the same molecular structure. And in this case, one drug can treat several different types of tumors, and determining the structure of cancer cells can help with the selection of more effective anticancer drugs.


Lately there has been a lot of talk about cloning mammoths. What do you think about this - is it feasible and why is it necessary at all?

- This is complete nonsense and cheating. Now there is no technical possibility to do this - neither in our country, nor in the West.

In the context of cloning, a South Korean scientist (his name is Hwang y Suk - NS) is usually mentioned, who is known for falsifying his results. He really cloned a dog, then said that he had cloned a man and published a couple of falsified articles for which he was expelled from the university …

No one yet knows how to clone a mammal by injecting genetic material into another mammal. They did it on bacteria, but not on mammals.

In theory, if possible, it is very difficult. If, for example, you unfold a person's DNA, you get a line three meters long. Even if you somehow manage to synthesize DNA as long as a mammoth chromosome, you will not be able to reproduce its correct physiological state. If you introduce a miraculously reproduced DNA in a test tube to another mammal, it simply does not take root there and degrades.

In general, there are such difficulties that it is not possible to solve at the moment.

What do you think about the DNA of dinosaurs, is it still possible to decipher their genome? DNA, after all, does not live as much as has passed since the era of the dinosaurs

- DNA really doesn't live that long. The record is about hundreds of thousands of years. With DNA that is tens of thousands of years old, experiments are carried out - with the same Neanderthals, for example. The DNA found in the bones of a Heidelberg man in the Spanish cave of Sima de los Huesos and subsequently deciphered by scientists was approximately 400 thousand years old. But it was mitochondrial, not nuclear, DNA.

Over time, DNA breaks down. In a living organism, there are mechanisms that restore it. However, when it lies in the ground, then nothing prevents its destruction, especially in a humid and warm climate.

Proteins are destroyed more slowly. There were articles where people claimed that they were able to determine the sequence of collagen proteins in a dinosaur. There was a lot of disagreement in the scientific community at that time - many believed that this was an experimental error.

You can go the other way: take the modern sequences of birds, crocodiles, modern mammals and fish, Construct a phylogenetic tree from these proteins - to reconstruct by sequences how these proteins developed during evolution. And then reconstruct how these proteins looked in a certain internal node - for example, in a dinosaur node, and then synthesize this protein. This type of work has already been done, including with dinosaurs. Using this method, it was even possible to synthesize proteins that were present in the common ancestor of all bacteria.

And those who cry for dinosaurs can go outside and kiss any pigeon - this is the direct ancestor of the dinosaur, the same evolutionary line that is preserved in modern birds and crocodiles.


What do you think of the popularized myth about the dangers of GMO foods? Are they really harmful?

- The harm of GMOs is a myth, because there is not a single conscientious experiment that would prove this harm. The experiments that were written about in the newspapers are experiments of very low quality, which do not prove anything. There, even the quality of statistical processing of the obtained data is low. For example, from the results of the infamous experiment of the French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini, it follows that male rats, on the contrary, are very useful GMOs - they live longer.

In fact, they checked quite a lot. All of the livestock industry in the United States is one big experiment in the use of genetically modified products. If GMOs really did harm, it would become noticeable very quickly.

The attitude towards GMOs in our country is a sad combination of three things. The first is, I beg your pardon, the ignorance of the population. If you now stop a person on the street and ask about GMO tomatoes, he will answer that there are genes in a GMO tomato, but there are no genes in an ordinary tomato, or some other similar nonsense.

The second is the dishonesty of people who make a political career on the topic of the harm of GMOs. Some of them may be really real psychos, but a significant proportion of such people, I am sure, are calculating cynics who simply improve their well-being.

The third is the ignorance of the journalists. On the one hand, they are unable to understand whether they are being told the truth or not, on the other, they are chasing a sensation. After all, the fact that GMOs are not harmful to health is not very sensational. But to show a photo of a rat suffering from cancer from Séralini's experiment, to give a bright headline is a sensation. And few people know that in fact this is a special line of rats bred for cancer research - they all grow tumors.

I will say more - there are real benefits from GMOs. Recently I read an article in which scientists calculated how much the load of herbicides and insecticides on the fields where GMO crops are grown is reduced. That is, really harmful things - toxins - are no longer so needed thanks to GMOs, the load on the field is reduced by tens of percent.

GMOs are good for the economy, especially for developing countries, which include Russia in terms of agriculture. Thus, the production of GMO soybeans is much less expensive than conventional soybeans. Reducing the purchase of insecticides also reduces costs.

Another plus of GMOs is the elimination of vitamin deficiency. Some foods lack vitamins, for example, rice is low in vitamin A. Therefore, in Asia, where rice is the main product of the diet of people (again, not rich), vitamin deficiency is common, as a result of which children are born blind.

Therefore, scientists made GMO rice, in which they planted sunflower genes. These new genes allowed rice to produce carotene - what is needed to eliminate vitamin deficiency and blindness. So every person who thoughtlessly yells about the terrible harm of GMOs is personally responsible for blind children.

Also in the situation with GMOs ecologists surprise me. After all, you can, for example, discuss the impact of GMO fields on the environment: there is no data on harm, but, purely theoretically, it is possible. Instead, environmentalists, unfortunately, are very fond of squeezing into the crowd of anti-GMOs and using their unscrupulous methods to fight for seemingly good environmental goals.


What, in your opinion, are the future prospects for antibiotics, after all, in the spring the WHO announced a worldwide alarm - diseases are becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics?

- In general, the history of antibiotics is a beautiful illustration of evolutionary theory, described clearly within the framework of natural selection.

Antibiotics have always been around. Soil bacteria have poisoned each other with them from time immemorial. Accordingly, they learned to defend themselves, developing stability. This resistance spread when bacteria ingested the DNA of resistant species.

But then a man intervened and began to be treated with antibiotics for his pathogens. Pathogens are inherently susceptible to antibiotics because they have not encountered soil bacteria. When you start taking antibiotics and drink their full course, you kill all pathogenic organisms. If you started taking them, you feel better, and you stopped taking them, then it turns out that you killed the sensitive bacteria, but remained a little resistant; they are always there simply due to the genetic heterogeneity of the population. Then again the population develops, becomes heterogeneous, even more stable variants appear in it - and again the same thing: a prematurely terminated course, less stable ones are killed, more stable ones remained without competitors and multiplied.

At one time, a Russian-American project was launched, within the framework of which the treatment of tuberculosis with the help of modern means was improved in several prisons (the source of resistant strains are prisons and camps, and in Russian prisons there is a rather difficult situation with antibiotic resistance of tuberculosis), but, to unfortunatelyfor political reasons, it was closed. At the same time, as stated in the WHO report, one of the reasons for the increase in disease resistance to antibiotics is the total and systematic practice of under-treatment of diseases among the population of the entire planet.

Another factor in increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics is the Western fashion of feeding livestock with small doses of antibiotics. Now in the European Union such a practice has been banned, but the harm that it has already managed to bring, apparently, is colossal. After all, pathogens both in us and in mammals, which are bred like livestock, are, in general, the same. But on farms, animals are in contact with the soil, and pathogens in them can come into contact with the very soil bacteria that have developed resistance to them, which also increases the resistance of pathogens harmful to us.

Then it turns out that producing antibiotics is unprofitable for large pharmaceutical companies (small ones will not be able to cope with it at all). Antibiotics are taken in a short course, resistance to them very quickly appears - all this means that the drug will not be on the market for long. It turns out that making antibiotics is simply unprofitable.


As for, for example, tuberculosis in our country, which is already resistant to most of the known antibiotics, there can be only one alternative to antibiotics. As at the beginning of the last century - kumis, mountain resorts … And that's all. Of course, biologists and physicians are trying to do something about it, but there is still little optimism.

The interview was published in Naked Science (# 17, January 2015).

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