Earth – a planet not of people, but of bacteria

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — To watch and see the microbiologist Konstantin Severinov came as venerable academic teachers, burdened with positions in the administration, and students of Kharkov universities.

For the former, he is a revolutionary from science, which seeks to rationalize the existing system of living of research institutions.

For others – a real example of a person who was able to break out into the free world with his serious scientific budget.

For both of them, it’s an incomprehensible crank who, despite being a professor at the American University of Rutgers with a lifetime salary of 150 thousand dollars a year, took and returned to the Moscow region to take part in the work of the new Russian scientific center Skolkovo. At home, he also heads the laboratory of molecular genetics, but, besides this, conducts active propaganda in the Russian Federation of a more progressive arrangement of Russian science. Transplanting “overseas things” on Russian soil, as it turned out, is very difficult, but the enthusiast does not lose hope.

“You can’t pump up an ineffective system of organizing science”

– Konstantin, a few years ago you surprised everyone in the Russian scientific community when you unexpectedly returned from the United States to participate in the then very “raw” Skolkovo project. Do you still believe that a scientific breakthrough in a single innovative town is possible in the territory of the former Union? Is it obviously not so easy to overcome the resistance of the conservative community of leading research institutes that advocate centralized equalization in the distribution of budget funds?

– Yes, not easy. But, contrary to all, the new Skol Tech University is already under construction in the territory of the town you mentioned. Until 2020, about 200 leading research professors from around the world will work in the framework of this project. The selection is underway. We also prepared a draft program of “1000 laboratories.” Scientists have been waiting for her for a long time, she promises a revolution in Russian science. The bottom line is so that the money is not sprayed according to a scheme that our academic leadership loves: all sisters – by earrings. That is – the most promising teams will be selected and receive significant grants through the competition. Independent laboratories will be able to create talented young scientists, which means that they will not go abroad.

It is in this way that science works in many leading countries of the world. But the leadership of the RAS is categorically against such an approach. They say that money should go to institutions, and its directors themselves will decide how to distribute it. Such a feudal scheme has the right to life, but then the directors of the institutes should be recognized worldwide scientific leaders. Today it’s enough to look at the objective ratings of the leaders of domestic research institutes to make it clear who is who in fact.

Pumping money into an inefficient system of organizing science is no longer possible. Funds should go to support those who really do world-class science.

“Questions of large numbers”

– The Western world is famous for its rigid rationalism. Where, then, is this need to be spent on expensive research in the field of basic science, which does not always bring practical results? That is, the laboratory may call its work promising as much as desired, but in any case it cannot guarantee a 100% result. What is the interest of investors?

– Indeed, if a scientist tells a potential customer that within three years he will create a cure for cancer, then he is simply a fraudster. Fundamental science, in contrast to applied science, is engaged in the development of the borders of the unknown. We will open the curtain of the unknown and at the same time we do not know at all what we will see behind it. Laws similar to those that operate on the stock market begin to operate there. Their essence is that stock behavior can be guessed once or twice, but it is impossible to guess all the time. He, the stock market, is unpredictable a priori. You can promise a penny result, but you can’t calculate where exactly the selected road will lead. And what to do? Is it possible to allow these scientists to do what they do there, getting pleasure from it? But it is also impossible not to have this.

The most acceptable way out of the situation was found in the USA. There are a lot of the most diverse laboratories, they all do something, and no one knows what this will lead to. But if the probability of commercial achievement in them is equal to at least one thousandth, they are entitled to support. In order to achieve something more, you need to have at least a thousand projects, or even 10 thousand. Here in my industry in the USA there are 25 thousand laboratories, so a big discovery is guaranteed to happen every year. In Russia, only 150 laboratories operate at the same level, and in Ukraine, probably, about a dozen – no more.

The probability of a breakthrough in such conditions is practically zero, because there are simply not enough people. That is, our scientists are not dumber. They are simply few. Actually it is a question of big numbers and, accordingly, big money. So, the securities market is unpredictable, but if you invest in it, then you will benefit more than the one who holds them under the mattress. In the same way, everything happens in fundamental science.

“People are a small superstructure on our planet”

– Konstantin, you call potential discoveries an area of ​​the unknown, but despite this, you can probably make at least some predictions about future sensations. What is new expected in microbiology?
– A revolution is brewing in modern biology. It will soon completely change our ideas about the diversity of life on the planet. Some 100 years ago, on the evolutionary tree of life, the highest pedestal was occupied by the crown of creation – man. Next came animals, plants, fish, birds and so on. But genetic research has completely changed this picture. It turned out that on Earth there are three huge “continents” of life forms: bacteria, archibacteria and eukaryotes.

The latter include man. Moreover, most of the life forms are invisible to the naked eye. And all that we see that flaunted on the branches of the mentioned tree in school books is only a tiny fraction, literally a thousandth of a percent of the real variety, of the invisible “dark matter”. If suddenly a terrible cataclysm happens, and all of humanity disappears, Then nature will not even notice this, because all the “dark matter” on Earth will remain. You must understand that this planet is a planet not of people, but of bacteria. We are just a small add-on.

Hence, in fact, the nature of future discoveries. For example, until recently, it was believed that all antibiotics (bacteria and some fungi create them) were already discovered by microbiologists. But now it’s clear that the number of unknown bacteria is incomparably greater, and therefore unlimited possibilities open up for the search for new drugs.

“Is there a threat that all this invisible matter will take and itself arrange for humanity some kind of cataclysm within the framework of the struggle of species?”

– In the process of evolution, a certain control is established, and everything is going fine. For every cell of the human body, there are at least 10, or even hundreds of bacterial cells. Without them, a person simply cannot exist. Another thing is when something is wrong with the person himself, then the usual bacterial microflora can cause his death. All of us, say, are seeded with Staphylococcus aureus. He just lives on us. But our skin releases natural secrets that control the amount of bacteria. And there are a lot of such protective mechanisms. The main thing is that the person himself does not destroy them with an unhealthy lifestyle.

I will tell you more: if there were zoos for bacteria, then they would be endless. They, as befits living beings, are constantly competing with each other. But the struggle between them is not at the level of the fox that ate the rabbit, or the rabbit that escaped from it, but at the level of exchange of chemical signals. A certain bacterium produces a certain substance, to which it itself is resistant, and one that is nearby and belongs to another species – dies.

At the same time, an antidote is produced for each poison, and then the endless “arms race” begins. As a result, very complex interacting systems arise that perform very simple actions. All this looks like a Rub Goldberg machine – an incredibly bulky design that operates with basic functions like feeding napkins or tying shoelaces. Living organisms are arranged on the same principle: they are not so much perfect as they are similar to the Goldberg aggregate. At the molecular level, life is surprisingly complex, and this complexity often makes no sense.

“I returned partially”

– did you return to Russia forever or are you trying to live and work in both countries?

– Well, let’s say this: I partially returned, because now I am a professor at an American university and have US citizenship. At the same time, my daughter was born in Russia. She is now eight years old. Two older children have long been living in America.

– When the youngest grows up, will you send her to study overseas?

– I do not know. Looking at my seniors, I’m not sure that the American education system is better than the Soviet one. Perhaps I am becoming a retrograde, but I am very pleased that my daughter lives and studies in Moscow. It was my conscious choice. Although, by and large, I do not know what will happen next. As a rule, I don’t know exactly where I will be even in a month. The picture is changing all the time. It is like driving along a busy road. For example, today they called from the laboratory because they got some kind of result, after which all my plans can change. The process is very important to me. It is important to me that it is interesting. Translation: Anton Efremov.

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