Coming up on this month’s Science Journal: advice on how to win the National Prize for scientific research – just revolutionise global progress in the field of virology; organisms of the Czech Republic, unite! Your genetic data is wanted, but there are so many of you – more than 100,000; and how do generations of children from smoggy Prague know there are stars out there? Because there is one of the largest planetariums in the world here, and it’s celebrating its fiftieth birthday.
For as long as it’s been possible, the various learned institutions of the Czech Republic have been gathering the genetic information of our animal cousins from wherever they lie – that means biologists, botanists, bacteriologists and beastiologists of all sorts have valuable collections of genetic information stored at their various places of study around the country. The idea now is to bring them together under the Academy of Sciences to make a genetic database of all that lives in the Czech Republic. One of the organisms organising that great feat is geneticist Jan Zima of the Institute of Vertebrate Biology in Brno.
“Collections of biological materials – such as tissues, cells and DNA samples – are kept at many institutions in our country. However, there is a considerable lack of coordination or a central database for such collections. So our aim is to make such a comprehensive, searchable database as a national gene bank.”
And who exactly would be using it and for what purposes?
“There are two basic purposes for such a bank. The first is the conservation of genetic diversity. We can conserve biological materials, native biological materials, in genetic banks – it is obviously not the best approach but obviously it is necessary and very useful. So this is the first aim of the genetic bank. And the second is to promote scientific collaboration aimed at understanding the patterns of biological diversity, distribution and variation. And such a database will obviously be open to other research groups who will make a tool for mutual interaction and collaboration.
Can we say how many species there are in the Czech Republic?
And the ones that we can only speculate about would be what kinds of organisms? Are we talking about bacteria and other microscopic organisms?
“Yes. Generally speaking, the groups that are relatively well-known are vertebrates and higher plants. Perhaps some groups of insects such as beetles or butterflies. But all the other groups are less known and with some of them our knowledge is really poor. That concerns bacteria, fungi, and other groups.”
What will the organisation of this bringing together of genetic databanks from around the country involve? Will it involve the building of a new centre, or what would the large-scale version of the plan entail?
“I think it is not necessary to build large new facilities, the main problem is coordination. You need a good computer and some people taking care of the database.”
So when could we expect such a database to exist?
“We hope to make the first steps as soon as possible and perhaps we can start building the database and the gene bank up next year. But it’s apparent that the process will be long, it’s not possible to do it in a week, it will be a question of several years.”
They call it the Czech “Nobel Prize”, and not just because it sounds better that the real name of the governmental award for outstanding scientific research – the “Czech Head”. Whatever the name, it’s amongst the highest awards that a scientist can receive in the Czech Republic, and the man who received it this year is Jan Svoboda (yes, everyone in our show today is named Jan). To win such an award, Dr Svoboda did no less than crystallise our understanding of viruses and the way they attack us. Here’s me trying to get my head around the subject, when I spoke with Dr Svoboda just recently...
So, a retrovirus is an RNA virus - like HIV or some forms of cancer - that uses a special kind of chemical “key” to break into a cell, where it waits for an opportune moment to begin to multiply?
And you were able to clarify this process.
“Well of course it’s not so simple. I’ve been interested in virus transformation since the 50s, as a student. Back then I was looking for a suitable model, but as you know in Czechoslovakia in those days we were fully cut off from the world and did not have the proper chemicals. And therefore I turned my attention to the oncogenic activity of these viruses in mammals. And then I established the tumour line, which was the first so-called virogenic tumour line, where no infectious virus has been produced, but still the genetic information of the virus has been present. We discovered that the integrated provirus is present in every cell, but not fully expressed.”
Well your work has formed the basis for the work of other virologists all over the world; how much of what you hoped to achieve has been achieved? Or where has the rest of the world taken your discoveries in virology and what do you still hope could come of your work?
“Well, in fact I almost fulfilled what I wanted. You have to take into account the fact that now we have the era of molecular biology, and everything I originally did was based on biological and cytological investigation. Nowadays people are very interested in what’s happening at the molecular level. This is a very important issue, because in order to intervene with the virus we have to know how the cell is able to intervene with it, and to propose new strategies accordingly. Therefore, I think that the extension of our original studies has quite an impact on the problem of how to stop retroviruses, HIV included.”
There were eventually Nobel Prizes handed out in this field, and your work was cited by the laureates, who said that you should have shared in the prize as well. Have you ever felt that you missed out on that?
“Well, I highly value Howard Temin, especially, who put in a lot of effort (of course he also had far better resources for his work). However, I have been following a completely different path. And he was fair enough in his Nobel Prize lecture, where he spoke about proviruses essentially, to clearly quote our contribution and our proposal and our findings as being independent of his.”
Now on to something I actually do understand, which is gazing at stars. On a good night in Prague City Centre you can see ten, maybe twenty of the things through the smog, signs and streetlamps. Thank goodness then for the Prague Planetarium, which for exactly 50 years now has been guiding stargazers young and old through the immensity of time and space. I offered my birthday congratulations to Jan Šifner, who told me a bit about how times have changed the planetarium.
“Fifty years ago we started with an old fulldome projector with one slide projector and a gramophone, and today we have a digital projector system, new optomechanic fulldome projector ‘Cosmorama’, 40-slide systems and other things.”
I understand that the Planetarium in Prague has quite a few superlatives; it’s the biggest screen in the country, it’s one of the largest planetariums in the world in terms of the size of its dome...
“We have a 23m dome, which means we are one of the largest planetariums in the world. And of course we are the largest planetarium in the Czech Republic and first in the world in the number of planetarium devices installed in one planetarium building, because we have six planetarium devices in our facility.”
“Yes I would like to imagine it. We will change the appearance of the entrance hall; that is planned for next year. And of course we would like to prepare a lot of new shows using the technology we currently have.”
That was Jan Šifner of the Prague Planetarium, which is now celebrating 50 years. With a hearty thank you to Mr Šifner and our other guests this month, Jan Svoboda and Jan Zima, Science Journal signs off. See you in November.