Lysenko Returns

The Soviet Era’s Deadliest Scientist Is Regaining Popularity in Russia
Trofim Lysenko’s spurious research prolonged famines that killed millions. So why is a fringe movement praising his legacy?

Wheat, rye, potatoes, beets—most everything grown according to Lysenko’s methods died or rotted, says Hungry Ghosts. Stalin still deserves the bulk of the blame for the famines, which killed at least 7 million people, but Lysenko’s practices prolonged and exacerbated the food shortages. (Deaths from the famines peaked around 1932 to 1933, but four years later, after a 163-fold increase in farmland cultivated using Lysenko’s methods, food production was actually lower than before.) The Soviet Union’s allies suffered under Lysenkoism, too. Communist China adopted his methods in the late 1950s and endured even bigger famines. Peasants were reduced to eating tree bark and bird droppings and the occasional family member. At least 30 million died of starvation.

Lysenko’s grip on power began to weaken after Stalin died in 1953. By 1964, he’d been deposed as the dictator of Soviet biology, and he died in 1976 without regaining any influence. His portrait did continue to hang in some institutes through the Gorbachev years, but by the 1990s, the country had finally put the horror and shame of Lysenkoism behind it.

Until recently. As the new Current Biology article explains, Lysenko has enjoyed a renaissance in Russia over the past few years. Several books and papers praising his legacy have appeared, bolstered by what the article calls “a quirky coalition of Russian right-wingers, Stalinists, a few qualified scientists, and even the Orthodox Church.”

There are several reasons for this renewal. For one, the hot new field of epigenetics has made Lysenko-like ideas fashionable. Most living things have thousands of genes, but not all those genes are active at once. Some get turned on or off inside cells, or have their volumes turned up or down. The study of these changes in “gene expression” is called epigenetics. And it just so happens that environmental cues are often what turn genes on or off. In certain cases, these environmentally driven changes can even pass from parent to child—just like Lysenko claimed.

10 thoughts on “Lysenko Returns

  1. In certain cases, these environmentally driven changes can even pass from parent to child—just like Lysenko claimed.

    Well, not like Lysenko claimed, but there are heritable non-genetic epigenetic changes in genetic clones. What are those heritable changes? METHYLATION patterns on the DNA, yeah baby! You know, one of the forms of DNA Random Access Memory (RAM) I get keep getting criticized for mentioning at TSZ.

    What’s the News: Foresters have long noticed that trees with the exact same genes, when raised in separate nurseries, have very different responses to drought. While one shoots up through lean times, the other droops. Why the divergence?

    Scientists have now found that twin trees raised separately are, just like human twins, expressing different genes. In other words, nurture is affecting nature.

    What’s the Context:
    •Commercially grown trees are often genetically identical: they are clones of some long-ago tree that had just the right traits for sandy soil or the shiniest apple. Some clone lines are quite old–that young maple on your street could be the genetic twin of a tree that lived in the 1850s.

    •While clones have the same genes as each other, whether those genes are expressed the same way is a function of epigenetics. The addition of methyl tags to DNA bases, called methylation, is an epigenetic change that allows some genes to be transcribed while others are not. How cells get their cues to methylate or demethylate DNA, though, is still fuzzy.

    How the Heck:
    •The team compared poplar tree clones grown in separate nurseries. There was nothing unusual about how the trees were raised—they were all grown indoors under standard conditions. But sure enough, when deprived of water, two of the three varieties showed diverging reactions depending on where trees were grown.
    Looking closer, the team found that the methylation patterns of the trees’ DNA were quite different.

    There you go, the methylation patterns on the trees DNA was different. This is the DNA Methylome. And look at all my detractors at TSZ who hate me mentioning these -OMES! There’s some vindication for the OMES right there baby!

    Merry Christmas! Bwahaha!

  2. Mung: Brilliant OP. I can’t imagine the thought that you must have put into it. Kudos.

    Definitely a thought-provoking article, but I’m genuinely trying to figure out whether you are being sarcastic. You don’t generally seem inclined to lavish praise.

  3. RoyLT: Definitely a thought-provoking article, but I’m genuinely trying to figure out whether you are being sarcastic.You don’t generally seem inclined to lavish praise.

    I think he’s just acknowledging his dearth of imagination.

    Seriously, my contribution is posting the link and quotes. I have no idea why that’s relevant. The parallel between Lysenkoism and ID’s version of epigenetics has been mentioned frequently. I am just amused and horrified that there are people who think that is a good thing.

  4. From the Atlantic article:

    Science, after all, is a major component of Western culture. And because the barefoot peasant Lysenko stood up to Western science, the reasoning seems to go, he must be a true Russian hero.

    I feel like we will soon be looking back with nostalgia on the days when science was a major component of Western (or at least US) culture.

  5. petrushka:

    ID’s version of epigenetics

    There isn’t much to ID’s version of epigenetics. I’m about the only IDist (except maybe Tom Woodward and James Gills (after whom 3 endowed chairs at John’s Hopkins are named) who promote ID epigenetics). Most IDists aren’t familiar with the biochemical aspects of it.

    Larry Moran is quite dismissive of epigenetics, but the NIH isn’t. They’ve thrown close to billion dollars at the study of it like:

    The NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Mapping Consortium was launched with the goal of producing a public resource of human epigenomic data to catalyze basic biology and disease-oriented research. The Consortium leverages experimental pipelines built around next-generation sequencing technologies to map DNA methylation, histone modifications, chromatin accessibility and small RNA transcripts in stem cells and primary ex vivo tissues selected to represent the normal counterparts of tissues and organ systems frequently involved in human disease. The Consortium expects to deliver a collection of normal epigenomes that will provide a framework or reference for comparison and integration within a broad array of future studies. The Consortium also aims to close the gap between data generation and its public dissemination by rapid release of raw sequence data, profiles of epigenomics features and higher-level integrated maps to the scientific community. The Consortium is also committed to the development, standardization and dissemination of protocols, reagents and analytical tools to enable the research community to utilize, integrate and expand upon this body of data.

    Is this Lysenkoism x 10? No. It’s doing epigenetics the right way.

  6. I have over the last year watched a lot of youtube historys on Soviets/Russia.
    Stalin commie years are presented as so evil that actually more people were murdered then in Hitlers time. quite more.
    i don’t see just stalin but all the commie elite and the establishment generally and it must of been millions of the common people. while not the other tens/hundreds of millions.
    in fact i wonder if the wwii was a punishment for the evil on the soviet union? did God allow it? i’m not sure!

    in the historys they say the famine, at least in the Unkraine, was on purpose to control them and to sell food abroad. Not about less crop yields.

    Russia is doing better but does still have problems.
    I think they might be disapointed they are not further ahead in wealth.
    however they should realize its better then ever.
    Actually at the early commie rebellion things were better then ever.
    However a expectations had risen too far.
    Communism did raise all those peoples and very quickly. In fact one of the fastest rising economies in history.
    However i see it as simply they forced the people to get more intelligent and offered some means of production. the commie stuff however got in the way of a rising intellectual curve.

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