We all have to focus on ensuring that genetics is not abused, says Professor Relich

Prof. RNDr. Jirina Relichova, CSc., author of the textbook ‘Genetics of populations’, has been at the genetics department at the Faculty of Science from the very beginning. A great propagator of Mendel, she promises much more from genetics in the future, but warns against its misuse.

15 Oct 2019 David Baláš

How did you come to be at the Faculty of Science in Brno?

I was born and lived in a village and I have loved nature since I was young. Later, in grammar school, I became interested in subjects led by good teachers, one of whom was my biology teacher, so I began to think about medicine or biology. Finally, I ended up studying professional biology at the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University. At that time, however, I had no idea that one day I would be a geneticist because grammar schools at the turn of the sixties did not even teach genetics.

Can you remember what your student life was like?

In my opinion, student life at that time did not differ much from today’s, though the conditions were different. We lived in dormitories that were in a terrible condition, and we often moved. We even lived in the monastery at Mendel Square for one year, in a huge room with students from the Faculty of Medicine. We didn't know each other, but we took life as it came; we attended lectures and learned together, but we also enjoyed our student years. We were young and we all like to remember that.

What would you say about students today, have they changed?

In the past, I think students appreciated the teachers and the course itself more. Today they are different. They’re more open and more courageous; however, I think they have less awareness of the academic community. Today, students have great freedom in decision-making during the course, such as choice of specialisation or choice of subject, and there is no problem with switching from one field to another. Previously, the system was simpler, but not so free. We were more modest, as the times required. Some students received a social stipendium, or, for excellent scholarship, a merit stipendium.

What form did the lessons take during your studies?

About 20 students formed a ‘year group’ and we were assigned a year teacher, who took care of us and told us what to do and how. We used to work in “brigades” in the agricultural fields, which was an excellent form of today’s “team-building”. Up until the third year, we all studied biology at the same level. After that, we specialised in genetics, plant physiology,

microbiology and the like, similar to students today. However, in addition to vocational subjects and languages, we also had compulsory subjects such as Marxism-Leninism, Political Economy and Scientific Communism. Specialised subjects began in the third year and my friend and I stayed at the Department of Genetics, where we wanted to do a thesis.

You’re actually one of the first two genetics graduates at the Faculty of Science, is that right?

I started studying at the faculty in 1962 - it was a time of great change. After the liberalisation of the regime in the Soviet Union at the turn of the fifties and sixties, genetics began to move away from “lysenkism”, opening up new space for genetic study. Although genetics had developed in the outside world, the subject had been banned in the Czech Republic since the post-war coup as a bourgeois pseudo-science. But 1965 (when I was in my third year) was a turning point in this respect. Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries re-embraced genetics. In that year, there was a large international symposium in Brno, to which geneticists from all over the world came with the aim of establishing an independent Department of Genetics. This was achieved in 1967, just when I finished my studies.

Following your studies, you stayed at the Department of Genetics at the Faculty of Science and continued in the genetics department until you retired. How was the department after its establishment?

After graduation, I was admitted to the Department of Genetics as a lecturer. Unfortunately, however, the subject fell into disfavour again and the Department of Genetics was abolished for political reasons after two years. It was then affiliated to various related departments. However, lectures and research continued and new lectures and exercises were introduced, such as molecular genetics, evolutionary genetics, history of genetics and more. I didn’t fit into the right box so was not allowed to be a teacher, but could do research. Still, I was teaching, writing scripts and preparing lectures.

Could you tell us what research was being done then?

This is absolutely impossible to compare with today. We started researching genetic variability in natural populations. We chose Arabidopsis thaliana (mouse-ear cress) as a model subject, a small, inconspicuous plant that is commonly found in nature. At that time, it was a little-known model for genetic research - a plant that only a few European laboratories worked with. Due to its unique properties however, it has gradually proven to be an invaluable model for genetic research in various fields, including molecular genetics, and is now used in laboratories around the world. As a result, our research focus has received recognition abroad. However, research conditions were limited - we addressed a partial plan of the state research task, which was refined every five years. We received about ten thousand crowns for the year, from which we bought the items necessary for growing plants and to construct a “phytotron”, an illuminated room for year-round experiments. We could order items every two years, which were mainly basic, like a thermostat. Almost every year we had the opportunity to order a book or chemicals from abroad for foreign currency. These things might arrive a year later, or even not at all - but we worked a lot with the Institute of Biophysics of the Academy of Sciences, and they had incomparably greater opportunities and funding for research.

Incidentally, I have worked with Arabidopsis thaliana for most of my career, both with natural populations and later on mutations. Our mutant lines still form part of the global collection at the Arabidopsis Stock Centre, where they serve different laboratories as needed. Great attention was also paid to the study of genetic damage due to xenobiotics in the environment. This is the monitoring and estimation of the genotoxic risk of pollutants to different organisms, including humans. It is only since 2000 that have we received grants focussing on human genetics.

How have the possibilities for genetics changed since 1989?

As I said, genetic studies were not easy at first, but after the revolution everything returned to normal. This may be illustrated, for example, by the fact that I was not allowed to defend my Doctoral dissertation until 14 years after its submission, by which time the political situation had eased. In connection with our opening up to the world, genetics was now actively promoted, both at the faculty and in the country generally. We obtained foreign textbooks on genetics and research grant funds, one of which was focused on the genomes of different organisms and their functions. I also had the opportunity to gain experience and learn new research methods at the Max-Planck Institute in Germany. The Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology was established, we opened a new field of study in Molecular Biology and Genetics, and we received accreditation for two Doctoral study fields, Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology. All of this required adequate staffing with qualified personnel. There was no professor of genetics active in the Czech Republic at the end of the 1990s, so when I was appointed professor of genetics and two colleagues from the department were habilitated, the faculty also gained accreditation for habilitation and professorship.

You are very interested in the personality of G. J. Mendel, who is widely described as the founder of genetics. What is his significance from your point of view and the importance of his link with Brno?

Mendel is definitely the father of genetics. The fact that his discoveries at the Augustinian Monastery here in Brno in 1865 gave birth to a new science is now known to the world, even though it was only named genetics in the early 20th century. The place where Mendel conducted his experiments is now visited a lot. Many noblemen used to meet at the monastery’s refectory, where they would always express admiration and appreciation at being in the place where genetics originated. I have always put great emphasis on the connection between Brno, genetics and Mendel. In my lectures, I emphasise to students that they should know as much as possible about Gregor Mendel and his work while studying in the city where he made his epochal discoveries. Since 1965, the Mendelianum of the Moravian Museum has been taking care of Mendel’s legacy and, in recent years, the Mendel Museum of Masaryk University in the premises of the Augustinian Monastery. Thanks to these institutions, awareness of this exceptional personality from the city of Brno has risen.

Are Mendel’s teachings valid for today’s geneticists?

Its basic principles have general validity. After all, he himself foresaw this when he stated that his discoveries would be valid for the whole organic world. His principles of segregation and combination also apply to humans. For example, regarding the inheritance of yellow and green colour in peas, many diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, also display inheritance. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mendel’s discoveries at the chromosome level were also confirmed in fruit fly species at the Morgan Laboratory. Since then, there have been great developments in genetics in many ways, with new possibilities emerging for its use in a range of fields and specialisations.

Has genetics changed our daily lives?

Oh yes, in a huge way. The last century was a time of development in genetics, while in this century the knowledge gained has been put to practical use in plants and animals, including humans. After the entire human genome was read early this century, many genes responsible for hereditary diseases were identified, making it possible to target treatment. I think we can expect further groundbreaking changes in the future. Today, prenatal diagnosis is common, and not only in families where there is a risk that the offspring will inherit a genetic disorder. The methods used to this end are still being improved and, at the same time, new opportunities for repairing defective genes or their malfunction are being developed.

It seems like we will be able to create almost perfect people without flaws or difficulties one day. Doesn’t this go beyond the edge of interfering with what nature created?

Today, it is forbidden to change the genetic information of sex cells that are passed on to the next generation. Only somatic body cells can be altered. The possibilities are so great that there are obvious concerns. We all need to focus on not interfering with human genetic equipment. The border exists, in my opinion, where there we can help against the various hereditary diseases. Recently, however, we have seen how easily new methods of gene editing can be used to target a gene mutation, and here it is particularly important to respect the ethical boundaries.

There is also a lot of resistance to genetically modified plants and food.

Genetic modifications, or mutations, occur naturally and spontaneously. When it comes to introducing a foreign gene into a particular organism, be it plants or animals, there are sufficient controls on which genes they are, whether they are safe, and whether they bring the desired improvement. I consider genetically modified organisms to be beneficial and not dangerous.

Working at a university combines both scientific and education activities. What is your relationship to teaching?

Well-run instruction is an essential part of any school. Of course, at the Faculty of Science, where we prepare students for future careers, high-quality practical scientific training is also necessary, especially in the form of exercises, Bachelor theses and, especially, Diploma and Doctoral theses. This requires that academics be both excellent teachers and successful researchers with grant projects. In my opinion and experience, both cannot be done 100 percent. Thus, some academics have many teaching duties, a broad technical overview and large numbers of students, but have less time for research, while those who are very successful in science tend to teach selective niche lectures for small numbers of students. Both are important to the school.

I started as an elévka (teaching assistant) by introducing the Genetics Exercise, and during my work on genetics I introduced or received lectures and exercises on various subjects, including Plant Genetics, Mutagenesis, Cytogenetics, History of Genetics, Population Genetics, and a core lecture on General Genetics for 300 students.

Do you think you were a favourite or a dreaded teacher?

I think a bit of both. I have always come out of the anonymous assessment of students quite well. The subject of genetics is very interesting, and obviously captivates the students. At the same time, genetics is a relatively difficult subject, so I was a dreaded examiner during the exams as I wasn't going to compromise on a certain standard of knowledge. I think it is necessary to keep a high standard, both in the classroom and in the exams. On the other hand, I consider it important to motivate students, not depress them.

Byla jste redaktorkou prvního i druhého českého vydání americké učebnice Genetika (Snustad a Simmons), která po třiceti letech nahradila dosavadní již zastaralou učebnici. Jak probíhala práce na tomto překladu?

Byla to první komplexní učebnice současné genetiky v češtině. Na více než 800 stranách je ve 24 kapitolách prezentován průřez všemi oblastmi genetiky spolu s dalšími náležitostmi, jako jsou řešené problémy, příklady, rejstřík a podobně. Jako celostátní učebnici ji používají i na Slovensku. U prvního překladu jsem oslovila odborníky s dlouholetou zkušeností ve výuce, a to nejen profesory z Masarykovy univerzity, ale i z Veterinární a farmaceutické univerzity, z Mendelovy univerzity a z Biofyzikálního ústavu Akademie věd. Všichni přistupovali k překladu s velkým nadšením. Já jsem kromě překladu byla také editorkou celé učebnice. Narazili jsme samozřejmě na mnoho překážek. Problém byl například s terminologií, která se musela ustálit a sjednotit. Jak jde pokrok v genetice rychle kupředu, tak se v mluvené řeči běžně používá laboratorní hantýrka a zde se pak musely citlivě volit české ekvivalenty. Díky zmíněnému nadšení a profesionálnímu přístupu vedení MUNI Press, se podařilo téměř nemožné – že česká verze učebnice vyšla ve stejném roce jako americké vydání. Po osmi letech jsme pak vydali druhé aktualizované vydání s celou řadou nových a zásadních poznatků. Byla to velmi radostná práce a já osobně v tom spatřuji pěkné zakončení mé profesní kariéry.

Napsala jste také svou vlastní knihu Genetika populací, v čem byla práce na této knize jiná?

Práce na překladu Genetiky byla úplně jiná. Genetiku populací jsem předtím dlouho učila, a proto jsem mohla využít svých zkušeností, jak látku studentům podat. Učebnice k tomuto předmětu u nás chyběla a byla žádaná především proto, že se jedná o obtížný předmět, studenti ho neměli moc rádi a měli s ním problémy. Je tam totiž potřeba úplně jiného myšlení; v úvahu se nebere genová výbava jedince, ale celé populace. Navíc, některé zahraniční učebnice používají velmi obtížný matematický aparát, proto bylo třeba pro tyto účely použít matematiku přístupnou biologům, a přitom neubrat na srozumitelnosti.

Uvedla jste, že pedagogická dráha hrála ve vašem profesním životě prim. Řadíte proto zmíněné publikace mezi své největší úspěchy?

Rozhodně. Ale kromě toho, když bilancuji svých 45 let působení na fakultě, tak můžu říct, že jsem stála na počátcích genetiky a za ta léta napomohla jejímu rozvoji ve výuce i ve vědě až k dnešnímu stavu. Toho si velmi vážím.

Masarykova univerzita letos slaví 100 let od založení. Co byste jí popřála do další stovky?

Aby měla co nejlepší pedagogy i vědecké pracovníky. A díky tomu, aby postupovala v žebříčku univerzit stále k prvním místům. Přírodovědecké fakultě bych přála, aby k tomu přispěla co nejvíce.

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