Professor Olga Dontsova is an Academician of Russain Academy of Sciences, Ph.D. in chemistry. 

More than 300 years have passed since people managed to observe the life of cells. Over this period, cytology has moved far ahead. Now such researchers as Olga Dontsova not only cultivate cells outside the body and create new antibiotics, but also reveal the secrets of eternal youth. 


– Your latest research is aimed at finding new antibiotics. What is the reason for this? 

 Every action has a reaction. Bacteria oppose us, and we oppose them. This is a cycle. In the world constantly appear bacteria, resistant to various effects, including the existing antibiotics. However, it is possible that those antibiotics that were at the beginning of the century will again become effective.

In order finding new medications was more effective, my colleagues created a test system for the robot. It checks various connections at a very high speed (several thousand connections at a time). 


 How does studying the ribosome help in finding new antibiotics? 

 The ribosome is very good in this regard. Firstly, the ribosome is a complex object, it contains long RNA molecules and a large number of protein molecules. That is why changing something in it and adapting to everything at once is much more difficult than in a separate small protein. Secondly, as a rule, bacteria have not one gene, but several genes of ribosomal RNA. And even if a mutation occurs only in one of them the ribosomes, which include this molecule, will also become resistant. In this case, other ribosomes with different RNAs without mutation will remain sensitive to the action of the antibiotic, i.e. the intensity of protein synthesis will be insufficient, and eventually the whole cell will die.

But the cell learned to fight even this. It processed enzymes that modify the components of the ribosome. That is how resistance of the cell appears.

The demand for new antibiotics is currently increasing. New ribosomal inhibitors can be found following the structure of ribosomes. In the West there is a successful company created by scientists who have determined the structure of the ribosome, which develops new antibiotics on the basis of this structure. 

 What is telomerase and why should people observe them? 

 This is an RNA-protein complex, a key element of the system that supports telomere length. At the ends of each chromosome, there are telomeres. With each division of the cell, the length of the telomeres decreases. If the telomere length is not maintained, the DNA in the chromosome is shortened, which leads to loss of telomeres and cell death. If you start to cultivate fibroblasts that do not have telomerase, then somewhere in 50 generations your cell will die, as it will have too short telomeres. Some cells can survive by telomerase activization. This occurs when cancer cells appear. There is a telomerase in the genital and stem cells, so they can maintain the length of telomeres and divide endlessly. 


 Does this mean that if scientists manage to maintain the length of telomeres, then people will have eternal life? 

 Our scientific activity is aimed at studying the mechanisms of telomerase activity. But it is too early to talk about eternal life. In fact, telomerase is now actively studied throughout the world. Partially, this is caused by people's desire to remain young. In the USA, some insurance companies look at how long your telomeres are. With short ones you will pay a lot of insurance as the longer your telomeres are, the longer you live.

But the flip side of this is that most cancer cells also activate telomerase as a system to maintain telomere length and thus the cell becomes cancerous much faster. The most terrible cancers are obtained from stem cells, in which there is already active telomerase. 

 What is the main difficulty of lengthening of telomeres? 

 In telomerase, there is RNA and a large number of proteins that are necessary for its work. There are proteins that collect telomerase. Thanks to other proteins, it travels around the cell and must reach the telomere at the right time, in order to contact it and start lengthening it. Then it needs to escape from there, otherwise the telomeres will become too long, this is also bad. In general, now we face a number of problems to be solved before we put results of our work into practice.

All processes are complicated, and initially we must understand that it is we who study how this works and how this is regulated. Killing one, you kill much more. And vice versa, by activating some processes, you cause other ones which you would not really like to activate. Therefore, it is never possible act thoughtlessly in this field. 

 Why do you study yeast? 

 We have special yeast, thermotolerant ones. They do not die at 60ºC, so the proteins in them are more stable. We always need a model organism for experiments. On the basis of the experiment we understand how to proceed with our work. In fact, we can’t experiment on people, that is why we experiment on yeast. From the point of view of the telomerase structure and telomeres, this is a very interesting object for us. And it is enough for our research. 

 You received the European Academy Award for Young Scientists. Have you been striving for science from an early age? What guided and motivated you? 

 I received that award being a Ph.D. in chemistry. Probably by parents who were engaged in chemistry infected me with interest in scientific problems. I graduated from the chemical school, and, apparently, the road to the Faculty of Chemistry was predetermined for me at the genetic level.

Scientific research is extremely interesting. Sometimes you discover something that no one knew before you. It's so exciting! Some people like to make money, some prefer to construct planes, and someone wants to explore how cells and molecules are arranged, how they work and function together with us.

However, telomerase is my love. People know pretty much about ribosomes, but telomerase is much smaller. The world is changing, science is changing, and one can’t do the same things. One has to think about what is around the corner, and try to do something new. 

 Should women be encouraged to study natural sciences? Many believe that women are more likely to be better in the human sciences. 

 I know a number of women who are much more successful in the technical sciences. But a woman, of course, is genetically predisposed to wanting children, taking care of them, educating, feeding, and dressing them. One can't get away from it. I achieved success in life because my husband and parents always understood and supported me. Nevertheless, I have only one child. And now I regret about it. But such is the way of my life. We worked like seamen in a long voyage. Our salary in the Moscow State University was only 5 dollars a month. That is why my husband and I at times went abroad to work there for several months and earn money to live in Russia. Then there were grants, mainly international ones. They helped us very much. 

 What was your attitude to working abroad? 

 I don’t think that working abroad is bad. It seems to me that all young people should try working in other countries and spend two to five years there. This experience is very useful. When people, having visited different places, gather in one university, this usually gives good results.

But young scientist going abroad should have an impetus to return. Unfortunately, I do not see this impetus yet. Yes, now we have good grants, now we have the Russian Science Foundation and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research supporting science. But those salaries that are now paid in universities and institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences do not allow many talented young scientists to seriously think about coming back to Russia after being abroad. Senior scientific officers now earn 20 thousand rubles. In order he could live here, have a family, and rent an apartment, he should be paid extra money from the grants. However, even with grants, none of them will be able to pay off a mortgage, since the additional payments are temporary. Moreover, even with grants, salaries here can’t match with foreign salaries. In addition, there are serious problems with the supply of reagents and other equipment that makes the work in foreign laboratories much more effective and leads to better scientific results. 

 In terms of education itself, do you think that it is necessary to increase the number of hours in school devoted to science? 

 We have great education. I have worked at the Moscow State University for many years. Our university regularly educates groups of very good students. Only a small part of them starts working in the scientific sphere in our country. They either go to advanced laboratories that have good financial security or become involved in business. Many talented young people in advance plan to go abroad for postgraduate education and then not to return.

We prepare specialists perfectly. Institutions from all over the world ask us to send there our young specialists, and we do it. Unfortunately, it turns out that we educate them not for Russia but for other countries. In this regard, I think the education system we have now is wrong.

I think education should be fully paid. And if the student wants to leave Russia, then first let him pay. In case one can’t pay for education, then let him work for Russia. Teachers earn too few, and very soon the level of teaching will fall, because the generation that still comes from the Soviet Union will leave. Scientists over 40 and 50 years old can literally be counted on the fingers. The number of those not inferior to the previous generation of scientists is extremely small. We keep on losing many talented people systematically. And I am very sad because of this. 

Do you mean that after two or three generations, there will be no real scientists among us? 

 I don’t mean generations, actually. Five or ten years pass, and that will be all. We will lose a huge number of smart people. What will happen to the country if there is no intelligence in the scientific sphere? Science is made by people. If there are few intelligent people in science, then no matter what you invest in, it will not bring results. You can now give me 10 million dollars to set a record in downhill skiing, but I won’t manage it because I can’t physically do it. I believe that it is absolutely normal and right when science serves the state. The Academy of Sciences was created for this very purpose. No one now refuses to do anything for the country. Give money, set a task. Otherwise, it may turn out that we will give abroad not only people but also the results of our scientific activity. 

 Specialists who return to Russia are more appreciated on the labor market. In your opinion, what is the reason for this? 

 In part this is stimulated by the state. Those people who have gone abroad, enjoy the competitive advantages of working in foreign laboratories. On average they are ahead of those working in Russia. Our state gives those who return the opportunity to receive large grants in Russia and listens to their opinion. So, what should the youth do? Young people must go abroad. In Russia, you can work from morning till night, but it will be extremely difficult to compete with the foreign scientific environment.

At the time when we were flying rockets, China had almost nothing of that kind. At the present time China makes a real scientific breakthrough, because it realized that science is needed. Without it, there will be no intellectual and technologically advanced society. The Chinese do not seek to get a position in the USA. They want to prepare good publications, gain valuable experience and, as a result, good work in the scientific field in China. Where should our children return? In MSU, of course, there are modern instruments, laboratories, but there are very few places. And we have already discussed the salaries. Probably, Skoltech is a good variant. Graduate students there are given adequate scholarships, and employees are allowed to receive acceptable salaries. We can only hope that an appropriate infrastructure will be created. 


 Do you mean, there is equipment, but there are no good positions? 

 In addition, we still do not have the supply of reagents. For example, we can wait for antibodies for up to six months. If I plan an experiment, then tomorrow or the day after tomorrow everything needed should be on my table. Otherwise, the development of science is impossible. We simply can’t compete in such conditions.

To get something, we must fill out a pile of documents and justify each ruble. But we do not have the money that we could use in an inappropriate way. Scientists should be trusted. A lot of time is spent on dull, useless paper work. 

Now many people say that if within five years women do not engage in science, they will fail maintaining their attachment to the labour market. Do you agree with this? 

– We have a lack of good workers. In this regard, every women who will join us at any time will bring use. Our employee Maria Rubtsova twice had a maternity leave. In fact, during five years she did not participate in the life of the laboratory. Now Maria has done an absolutely brilliant job, which we plan to publish in a good magazine. If a person wants and can engage in science, he or she will always find the time and energy for this. 

Agata Korovina, news agency of the Eurasian Women’s Community

Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov