ISSN 10623604, Russian Journal of Developmental Biology, 2011, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 53–56. © Pleiades Publishing, Inc., 2011.
Original Russian Text © Y.E. Yegorov, A.V. Zelenin, 2011, published in Ontogenez, 2011, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 62–66.
The award of the Demidov prize to A.M. Olovnikov
is an important event generally for our native biological
science and, in particular, for the
Russian Journal of
The significance of this event to science in Russia is
that the work of A.M. Olovnikov is widely recognized by
the world scientific community. Also, the significance
to our journal is that for many years he has been a mem
ber of the editorial board and his active work has led to
the success of the journal.
The originality of the event being discussed is linked
to the fact that, to some extent, it has been a “Russian
response” to the award of the Nobel Prize to the group
of American scientists for advancement in the research
of telomeres and telomerase.
This decision by the Nobel committee has been
widely discussed in scientific and nonscientific circles
in Russia. Many scientists were perplexed that Olovni
kov was not among the recipients of this most presti
gious award. In nonscientific and nearscientific cir
cles, this issue was jokingly discussed but was not always
in a friendly way.
Discussing the motive and basis of the Nobel com
mittee decision is unlikely to make sense although we
would return to this question again. There is the need to
consider the essence of the work of Olovnikov.
According to the decision of the Demidov commit
tee, Olovnikov was awarded the prize for a series of the
oretical works in which the shortening of chromosomes
during aging was predicted and the effect of the end
underreplication of the linear DNA molecule, as well
the existence of telomerase as an enzyme which com
pensates for the telomere shortening (end regions of
chromosomes), was described.
Looking retrospectively at when these researches
were carried out, undoubtedly two people whose contri
butions were obviously underestimated by the world sci
entific society can be distinguished. They are Leonard
Hayflick and Alexey Olovnikov.
The work of Hayflick (Hayflick and Moorhead,
1961) is still one of the most cited in biology. It did not
only identify the then before unknown fact but awak
ened the creative energy of most scientists in their
attempt to explain how cells count their division. As a
result of many years research Hayflick showed that
human cells divide in culture only a finite number of
times after which they initially stop dividing and later
die. Hayflick published his results with great difficulty.
Presenting the history of his discovery at the Telomeres
and Telomerase: Implications of Cell Immortality,
Cancer, and Related Diseases Conference (Redwood
City, California, June 1–3, 1998), Hayflick stated that
when his paper went for review by the later to be Nobel
Prize winner, Peyton Rous (discoverer of Rous sar
coma) rejected it. The public opinion by then was dom
inated by the belief that, in the hands of a skillful
researcher, cells are immortal, i.e., the number of divi
sions is infinite. This was based on the indisputable
authority of Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, who, in
the early twentieth century, convinced a large mass of
researchers that cells can be cultured for decades (Car
Hayflicks article received a large public resonance.
The Hayflick limit concept arose and become a dictio
nary word. The main role in the process of the large
masses becoming interested was played not by the arti
cle itself but by its innumerable commentaries, which
simplified the limit of replicatory events to the well
known 50th divisions, making it look like a property of
a human cell, although directly in the article a lot of
data on the number of population doubling of human
cells varying from 30 to 70 had been given. The theory
of aging linked to the limit on the ability of cells to
divide arose (Comfort, 1964). It has been shown that
the number of cell divisions in culture indirectly corre
lates with the age of the cell donor; cells of short lived
species divide in culture a lesser number of times than
those of long lived species, etc.
Racing for Cell Immortality, Telomeres, Telomerase,
and the Measure of Health
(A Reflection on the Award of the 2009 Demidov Prize in the Field of Biology
given to Alexey Matveevich Olovn
Y. E. Yegorov and A. V. Zelenin
Engel’hardt Institute of Molecular Biology, Russian Academy of Sciences, ul. Vavilova 32, Moscow, 119991 Russia
Received July 15, 2010