Astaurov, Boris L’vovich

views updated


(b. Kazan, Russia, 27 October 1904; d. Moscow. U.S.S.R., 21 June 1974)

zoology, cytogenetics.

Astaurov was a leading Russian cytogeneticist. In the 1920’s, as a member of Sergei Chetverikov’s group at Kol’tsov’s Institute of Experimental Biology in Moscow, he helped to originate Drosophila population genetics. In 1930 he switched to silkworm research, for which he won his candidate (1936) and doctoral (1939) degrees, and subsequently developed techniques for artificial parthenogenesis, intraspecific and interspecific androgenesis, and the production of the first artificially produced polyploid animal species. As a corresponding (1958) and later full (1966) member of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, he played a central role in reestablishing genetics as a legitimate science in the Soviet Union. Except for the period 1930–1935, Astaurov spent his entire career in Moscow at the Kol’tsov institute.

Astaurov was born into a prerevolutionary Russian medical family. His mother, née Ol’ga Andreevna Tikhenko, earned a doctorate in medicine from the University of Paris (Sorbonne); his father, Lev Mikhailovich Astaurov, studied medicine at the universities of Moscow and Kazan. Astaurov was horn in Kazan (where his parents were working during a cholera epidemic) but was almost immediately taken to Moscow, where he lived for most of his life. Upon completing his secondary education in 1921, he entered Moscow University and studied in the biological division of the physicomathematical faculty, earning his diploma in zoology in 1927 for a study of the hereditary variation of balancers in Drosophila melanogaster.

Drosophila Work . At the university, Astaurov took courses with M. A. Menzbir and A. N. Severtsov, but his primary interest was experimental biology as taught by N. K. Kol’tsov and his colleagues M. M. Zavadovskii (dynamics of development), A. S. Serebrovskii (genetics), S. S. Chetverikov (genetics, entomology), and S. L. Frolova (cytology). Astaurov was an undergraduate at Moscow University (1921–1927), a graduate student at its Zoological Institute (1927–1930), and a staff member of the Moscow branch of the Genetics Division of KEPS (Commission on the Study of Natural Productive Forces of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences; 1926–1930), participating in summer expeditions to Kazakhstan (1928) and Turkmenistan (1929). However, most of his research from 1924 through 1929 was conducted at Kol’tsov’s Institute of Experimental Biology (IEB), under the auspices of the People’s Commissariat of Public Health (Narkomzdrav), where he worked first as a laboratory technician and then as a scientific associate in its genetics section, headed by S. S. Chetverikov.

In 1925, together with N. K. Beliaev, E. I. Balkashina, and S. M. Gershenzon, Astaurov undertook the first genetic study of natural populations of various species of Drosophila. The results formed the basis of Chetverikov’s famous papers of 1926 and 1927, and, together with the study conducted in Berlin by two other members of Chetverikov’s laboratory, N. W. and E. A. Timofeeff-Ressovsky, initiated the long series of genetic investigations of natural Drosophila populations that formed the core of population genetics over the next four decades. His Drosophila work involved Astaurov in three problem areas which were to help shape his research career.

In the mid 1920’s the Chetverikov group discovered that Drosophila obscura Fall, from the environs of Moscow was reproductively isolated from the files brought to Russia from T. H. Morgan’s laboratory which had been named Drosophila obscura Fall, by Siurtevant. Working with S. L. Frolova on an investigation of the two forms, which were morphologically almost indistinguishable. Astaurov established that they were distinct species and coined the name pseiuhohscura for the American form, which was to become a mainstay of Dobzhansky’s later investigations. This work led Astaurov to contemplate the cytogentic basis of speciation, a theme he developed in his later work.

Astaurov was the first to identify the tetraptera mutation in Drosophila melanogaster, which develops the fly’s rudimentary halteres (balancers) into a second pair of wings. He established that the penetrance and expressivity of the mutation showed great variation depending on its genotypic milieu. However, even in inbred strains with a common genotypic milieu raised in a constant environment, the trait remained highly inconstant. In particular, there was no correlation between the trait’s appearance on the left and on the right sides of flies. Astaurov concluded that some mutations have high degrees of developmental instability, but that they can be found only in artificial laboratory conditions and almost never in nature, since natural selection works toward a definite and precise norm of reaction and a narrow range of spontaneous variability.

Finally, in the 1925 survey of natural populations, Astaurov noticed several female Drosophila phalerata which produced only females in subsequent generations. These puzzling strains were given to A. E. Gaisinovich for analysis, and he published a cytogenetic explanation with which Astaurov was not wholly satisfied. The genetic, cytological, developmental, and environmental factors which govern sex determination would subsequently become a central motif of Astaurov’s researches.

The period of the first Five-Year Plan involved ideological denunciations, arrests, institutional disruptions, and a new emphasis on the immediate utility of research. In 1929 Chetverikov was arrested and exiled, and his research group was disbanded and dispersed. As a result, in 1930 Astaurov abruptly dropped his work on Drosophila and began his lifelong study of the silkworm.

Silkworm Studies. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Russian investigators had carried out important work on the biology of silkworms at the Caucasus Station (later the Tbilisi Institute) of Sericulture, the Central Sericulture Station in Moscow, and the Moscow Sericulture Society, headed by the renowned breeder A. A. Tikhomirov.

By the late 1920’s work on silkworm breeding had intensified for both practical and theoretical reasons. Practically, the research base had been expanded by the creation of several new institutions. notably SANIISH (the Central Asian Scientific Research Institute of Sericulture) in Tashkent and ZAKNIISH (the Caucasian Scientific Research Institute for Sericulture and Silk Production) in Tbilisi, and in 1929 the Moscow section of KEPS—headed by Kol’tsov—was given responsibility for coordinating silkworm research. In addition to the obvious practical importance of the silkworm, it was also of theoretical interest because its eggs and larvae were especially useful in studying developmental mechanics. parthenogenesis, and sex determination. Since males produced considerably more silk than females, such work also promised to have important consequences for production, Beginning in 1928, the silkworm became an important object of research for several important Soviet biologists who had worked with Drosophila. notably Kol’tsov, Frolova, Efroimson. Beliaev, and (after 1937) Chetverikov.

In 1928 N. K. Beliaev became a consultant of SANIISH and worked there full-time beginning in 1929, transferring to ZAKNIISH in 1932 (where he worked until his arrest and execution in 1937). In 1930, on Kol’tsov’s advice and Beliaev’s urging, Astaurov moved to Tashkent to join SANIISH. and in 1932 began to study artificial parthenogenesis in the domesticated silkworm. Bombyx mori L. His initial studies drew upon the report of H. Sato (1931), who had managed to produce female adult parthenogenetic moths by treating unfertilized eggs of Bombyx mori with hydrochloric acid. Astaurov’s analysis demonstrated that it was not the acid, but rather the high temperature used in the treatment, which produced parthenogenesis. He found that by soaking unfertilized eggs in water at 46°C for eighteen minutes, up to 82 percent of the eggs would produce parthenogenetic adult moths. Astaurov conducted general studies on the effects of temperature and radiation on egg development.

Kol’tsov managed to have Astaurov reappointed to the IEB in late 1935 and he returned to Moscow, where he was awarded the degree of Candidate of Biological Sciences, without a dissertation, for his work. He did not rejoin the genetics section, however, which was then headed by N. P. Dubinin, but rather the institute’s laboratory of developmental mechanics, directed by D. P. Filatov. Although the other investigators in the lab were studying development in amphibians and reptiles. Filatov warmly supported Astaurov’s work on the development of silkworms. In this context, drawing on the work by Karpechenko on plant polyploidy, Astaurov developed techniques for producing triploid and tetraploid silkworms by mixing x-irradiation. temperature shock, and hybridization (1936–1955). In 1940 Astaurov suggested that animal speciation through polyploidy might occasionally occur in nature indirectly by parthenogenesis and hybridization; this view, which he developed in subsequent publications, remains controversial.

In 1937 Astaurov developed a technique of artificial androgenesis He found that high temperature applied to newly fertilized eggs disturbs the female nuclear apparatus and makes it possible to produce parthenogenetic male moths in which the cytoplasm comes entirely from the female, whereas the nucleus results from the fusion of two haploid sperm pronuclei. In 1938 he defended his dissertation (published as a book in 1940) on artificial parthenogenesis in the silkworm, for which he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Biological Sciences in 1939. With V. P. Ostriakova-Varshaver, he later developed a technique (1956) of interspecific androgenesis by fertilizing irradiated eggs of Bombyx mori (L.) with the sperm of nonirradiated wild silkworms, Bombyx mandarina (Moore) and then applying heat shock (40°C. 120–135 minutes). Eventually he was able to produce a fertile tetraploid bisexual species, which he called Bombyx allotetraploidus, by parthenogenesis, selection, and hybridization.

Lysenkoism . Astaurov’s research career coincided with the rise of T. D. Lysenko. the struggle between his so-called Michurinist biology and Soviet genetics, and the reestablishment of genetics as a legitimate scientific field after 1964. Astaurov played an important and unique role in these events.

In January 1939 Astaurov’s teacher and patron, Kol’tsov, was vilified in the press by Lysenko’s supporters, and a special meeting at the institute was held in which Dubinin and others condemned Kol’tsov for his earlier support of eugenics. In April, Kol’tsov was removed as director of the IEB. which was transferred into the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences and renamed the Institute of Cytology, Histology, and Embryology. Kol’tsov died of a heart attack in December 1940. Although Astaurov refused to denounce his teacher and wrote a laudatory obituary, he remained at his post in Filatov’s laboratory, and several years after the latter’s death in 1943 was appointed head of the laboratory of developmental mechanics (1947).

Following the August 1948 session of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences at which Lysenko’s biology was endorsed by the Communist Party, geneticists were fired from the Kol’tsov institute and from the Severtsov Institute of Evolutionary Morphology, and the two institutes were united into the new Severtsov Institute of Animal Morphology, In late 1948 Astaurov was replaced as laboratory director and briefly gave up his work on the silkworm, but remained a senior member of its staff and was one of the few Soviet geneticists to maintain his scientific research post—this despite the fact that, unlike a number of his colleagues, he never supported Michurinist biology ox renounced genetics.

Astaurov’s staying power was probablv related to several factors. He was apolitical and had maintained a low profile in the controversies over genetics. Officially he worked in the institute’s embryology laboratory rather than in its genetics division. Perhaps most important, his work involved the application of heat and soaking at early developmental stages in an agriculturally important organism, in order to deliberately alter its biological and hereditary character in desirable and potentially useful ways. This approach fit the contemporary ideological emphasis on the “transformation of nature” and the control of living processes to improve agricultural production. In 1951 Astaurov was made a member of the scientific council of his institute. In 1953 he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for his researches on the silkworm. In 1953–1954 he attended the Moscow Party Committee’s night school in Marxism-Leninism and earned a degree, which may have conferred a certain legitimacy.

During the period 1951–1974 Astaurov devoted considerable effort to combating Lysenkoism and reestablishing Soviet genetics. With the advent of de-Stalinization in 1955, he resumed his former post as head of the Filatov laboratory of developmental mechanics. In 1956 he was elected a member of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, subsequently becoming the head of its genetics section (1960–1966) and a member of its editorial board (1961–1969). In 1958 Astaurov was awarded a Soviet patent for his techniques of controlling the sex of silkworms, That same year he was elected corresponding member of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences in cytology, and was subsequently appointed to various editorial boards, national scientific commissions, and the Soviet certification board for scientific degrees, positions where he worked on behalf of genetics.

In 1958 Astaaurov was scheduled to be the only member of the Soviet delegation to the Tenth International Genetics Congress in Montreal who was not a Lysenko supporter. In a letter to the Communist Party Central Committee, Astaurov resigned from the delegation. After citing health and family reasons, he added that it would hurt his international scientific reputation to be in such company, and stated his belief that “the views of all the other members of the delegation verge on absurdity” (Berg, 1979). At a time when international travel was a coveted privilege, Astaurov’s resignation contributed to his moral authority.

Astaurov’s most telling arguments against Lysenko during the period came from his own silkworm research. Although Anglo-American genetics had long held that heredity is governed by the cell nucleus, in France and elsewhere on the Continent, and among Lysenkoists, a strong belief in cytoplasmic inheritance persisted. Astaurov’s technique of artificial intraspecific and interspecific androgenesis provided a way of demonstrating the differential effects of nucleus and cytoplasm on development. Using his techniques, he was able to generate hybrids of Bombyx mori and Bombyx mandarina in which the cytoplasm came entirely from one type and the nucleus entirely from the other. In each case, all the hybrid’s characteristics, and those of its subsequent parthenogenetic generations, were identical to those of the type providing the nucleus. In another experiment, he demonstrated that an unirradiated enucleated cell dies if combined with a lightly irradiated nucleus; but even a heavily irradiated enucleated cell was viable when combined with an unirradiated nucleus. Astaurov has indicated that although he realized such experiments were of little interest in the West, in “vast regions of the world” where the Lamarckian doctrine “strongly prevailed.” “such experiments retained their value and played rather a great role in the ultimate triumph of contemporary evolutionary genetics” (letter to Ernst Mayr, 4 May 1974).

Rebirth of Soviet Genetics. Following Khrushchev’s ouster in October 1964, Astaurov played an active role in the vindication of Soviet genetics, publishing articles popularizing its achievements and its history. In 1966 he was elected full member of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences and president of a newly created professional organization, the N. I. Vavilov All-Union Society of Geneticists and Selectionists (1966–1974). On 15 June 1967 the former Kol’tsov and Severtsov institutes (amalgamated since 1948) again separated, and Astaurov became director of the newly established Institute of Developmental Biology, which largely through his efforts was named after Kol’tsov in 1976. Also in 1967 Astaurov was awarded his second Order of the Red Banner of Labor for introducing scientific discoveries in agriculture.

Astaurov played a key role in creating a new historiography for Soviet genetics, editing volumes of early classics, some never before published, and writing biographies of his teachers Chetverikov, Filatov, and especially Kol’tsov. When the biochemist and geronlologist Zhores A, Medvedev was confined to a mental hospital on 29 May 1970 for his writings critical of Lysenko and the Soviet government. Astaurov played a central role in orchestrating the successful efforts by leading members of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences to obtain his release. Astaurov also became a strong advocate of the development of research in human genetics, a subject which had been suppressed since 1937. In various popular and philosophical articles, he raised sociohiological issues and explored the hereditary component of human moral and altruistic behavior.

Astaurov’s defense of Soviet geneticists and the Kol’sov legacy involved him in a controversy that dominated the final years of his career. Astaurov and Dubinin had parted company in the late 1930’s over the latter’s condemnation of Kol’tsov’s views on human heredity. Dubinin, who was also elected a full member of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences in 1966, assumed control of the Institute of Genetics from Lysenko in 1965, and it was transformed into the Institute of General Genetics; but Dubinin insisted on maintaining the Lysenkoists at the institute, and established an ideological and administrative tone some of his fellow geneticists found unpleasant. As a result, in 1967 a number of outstanding geneticists of the older generation who had recently joined the institute’s staff—notably V. V. Sakharov. B. N. Sidorov, and N. N. Sokolov—transferred their laboratories to Asiatirov’s institute.

Subsequently Dubinin joined the party, attacked some trends in human genetics as racist, and published an autobiography which criticized Kol’tsov for being a counterrevolutionary and a eugenicist. Astaurov defended human genetics work, much of which was being pursued by former students of Kol’tsov, and worked to establish the legacy of his teachers, Dubinin helped launch an ideological attack on Astaurov’s institute when one of its members failed to return home from an international congress in Italy. Astaurov left the hospital to defend his institute, but died almost immediately thereafter of a heart attack on 21 June 1974. He was buried in the most prestigious cemetery in the Soviet Union, located on the grounds of the former Novodeviehii monastery in Moscow.

For his work on experimental genetics and developmental biology, Astaurov won two Orders of the Red Banner of Labor (1953, 1967), a Soviet patent (1958), the Lomonosov Prize (1968), the Mechnikov Gold Medal (1970), and the Mendel Memorial Medal of the Czech Academy of Sciences (1965). He was also elected to various foreign and international bodies, including the International Institute of Embryology (Utrecht, 1956), the International Society of Cell Biology (Liège, 1957), the American Zoological Society (1960), the International Entomological Society (1966), and the Finnish Academy of Sciences (1974).


I. Original Works. Aslaurov is the author of more than 200 works, including 5 books and approximately 130 scientific articles (20 in English), 50 popular articles and interviews, 20 book reviews, and 20 historical works. His first publication was “Issledovanic nasledstvennogo izmeneniia galterov u Drosophila melanogaster Schin.” (A study of the hereditary variation of halteres in Drosophila melanogaster Sehin.), in Zhurnal eksperimental’noi biologii, ser. A. 3 , no. 1–2 (1927), 1–61.

For his work on silkworms, see “Artificial Mutations in the Silkworm (Bombyx mori L.),” in Genetica, 17 , no. 5–6 (1935), 409–460; “Iskusslvennyi partenogenez i androgenez u shelkovichnogo chervia” (Artificial parthenogenesis and androgenesis in the silkworm), in Biulleten’ VASKhNIL, 1936, no. 12, 47–52: Itskusstvennyi partenogenez u tutovogo shelkopriada: Eksperimental’noe issledovanie (Artificial parthenogenesis in the silkworm: An experimental study; Moscow and Leningrad, 1940); Tsitogenetika razvitiia tutovogo shelkopriada i ee eksperimental’nyi kontrol’ (Cytogenetics of the development of the silkworm and its experimental control; Moscow, 1968); Nasledstvennost’ i razvitie: Izhrannye trudy (Heredity and development: Selected works; Moscow, 1974); and Partenogenez, androgenez, poliploidiia (Parthenogenesis, androgenesis, and polyploidy; Moscow. 1977).

Astaurov also wrote important works in the history of Soviet biology, notably “Dve vekhi v razvitii geneticheskikh predstavlenii” (Two landmarks in the development of genetic concepts), in Biulleten’ Moskovskogo obshchestva ispytatelei prirody, biol. see., 70 , no, 4 (1965), 25–32; Nikolai Konstantinovkh Kol’tsov (Moscow, 1975), written with P. F. Rokitskii; and “Nauchnaia deiatel’nost’ N. K. Beliaeva: K istorii sovetskikh geneticheskikh issledovanii na shelkovichnom cherve” (The scientific activity of N. K. Beliaev: On the history of Soviet genetic studies of the silkworm), in Iz istorii biologii (On the history of biology), V (Moscow. 1975), 103–136, written with Z. S. Nikoro, V. A. Strunnikov, and V. P. Efroimson. Astaurov’s incomplete autobiographical sketch was published posthumously as “K itogam moei nauchnoi deiatel’nosti v oblasti genetiki” (Summing up my scientific activity in the field of genetics), in Istoriko-biologivheskie isstedovaniia (Historical biological studies), VI (Moscow, 1978), 116–160.

II. Secondary Literature. Bibliographies of Astau rov’s publications, together with biographical articles by P. F. Rokitskii, are available in Boris L’vovich Astaurow, Materialy k biobibliografii uchenykh SSSR, ser. biologicheskikh nauk, Genetika, no. 2 (Moscow, 1972), and Nasledstvesnnost’ i razvitie (Moscow. 1974). See also D. K. Beliuev’s introduction to the posthumous Astaurov festschrift. Problemy eksperimental’noi biologii (Problems of experimental biology; Moscow, 1977). Rokitskii published a brief biography in Vydaiushehiesia sovetskie genetiki (Leading Soviet geneticists; Moscow, 1980), 77–87. In English, see the obituary by Gaisinovitch in Folia Mendeliana, 10 (1975), 247–252; and the informative survey by Raissa L. Berg, “The Life and Research of Boris L. Astaurov,” in Quarterly Review of Biolog, 54 , (1979), 397–416.

Mark B. Adams

About this article

Astaurov, Boris L’vovich

Updated About content Print Article Share Article