Oparin, Aleksandr Ivanovich

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(b. Uglich, Iaroslav Province, Russia, 2 March 1894; d. Moscow, U.S.S.R., 21 April 1980)

biochemistry, origin of life.

The youngest child of Ivan Dmitrievich Oparin and his wife, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna, Oparin was born in the family home in the village of Uglich. The eldest sibling, his sister Aleksandra, worked as a nurse at the front during World War I. His older brother, Dmitrii, graduated from the Petrograd Polytechnical Institute as an economist in 1915. Oparin graduated from the Second Moscow Gymnasium in 1912 and entered Moscow University, supporting himself by working in a pharmaceutical factory.

Career . After graduating from the natural sciences division of the physicomathematical faculty of Moscow University in 1917, Oparin was accepted as a graduate student in its department of plant physiology, where he subsequently worked as a teaching assistant (1921–1925). The university sent him abroad in 1922 to study in the laboratory of Albrecht Kossel at Heidelberg, and he subsequently visited Austria and Italy (1924) and France (1925). Upon his return in 1925, he was permitted to teach his own course. “Chemical Bases of Living Processes,” at Moscow University. In 1931 he began teaching a course there in technical biochemistry.

Although Oparin studied and taught various courses at Moscow University over the years, he apparently never earned a regular graduate degree; in 1934 the presidium of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences awarded him a doctorate in biological sciences without his having defended a dissertation. As to his university position, Soviet sources are curiously inconsistent. One source indicates that he became a professor of biochemistry in 1929 and chaired the biochemistry department from 1937 to 1960 (Biologi, Kiev, 1984). However, an earlier and more authoritative source (A. I. Oparin, Moscow, 1964), states that he chaired the department of plant biochemistry from 1942 through 1960. This inconsistency may reflect the uncertain academic status of biochemistry as that discipline gradually became established in the Soviet Union, but it also highlights the fact that Oparin’s career developed largely outside of the university setting.

Oparin’s role in Soviet biochemistry owed much to the influence of his mentor and patron, Aleksei N. Bach (Bakh). Bach had belonged to a revolutionary party in tsarist days and left Russia in 1885 to work in Paris. In 1894 he settled in Geneva, where he gained an international reputation for his research in medical and agricultural chemistry, returning to Russia only in 1917. After the October Revolution, he helped to organize the chemical section of the National Economic Planning Council (VSNKh), which was responsible for organizing the Russian chemical industry, and in 1918 he became the founder and director of its Central Chemical Laboratory (renamed the L. Ia. Karpov Chemical Institute in 1922), charged with working out new production methods.

In 1918 Oparin asked to be sent to Geneva to work with Bach on plant chemistry, only to be informed that Bach had returned to Moscow. The two met and Oparin soon became the sixty-year-old chemist’s protégé. Oparin brought to the relationship both a research interest in Bach’s specialty and practical industrial experience. As the pharmaceutical factory’s delegate to the first convention of the All-Russian Union of Chemical Industry Workers in 1918, Oparin was elected to its central committee. He subsequently served under Bach in the chemical division of VSNKh (1919–1922) and at the Central Chemical Laboratory (1921–1925).

A prominent scientific supporter of the Bolshevik government, Bach joined the Communist Party in 1927 and rapidly rose in administrative power, serving as a member of the government’s Central Executive Committee (from 1927), an organizer of the All-Union Association of Scientists and Technicians (1928), and the perpetual president of the All-Union Chemical Society (from 1932). In the late 1920’s Bach took an active role in organizing research in the food industry, and his protégé was appointed to a series of appropriate posts. From 1927 through 1934 Oparin worked at the Central Institute of the Sugar Industry in Moscow as assistant director in charge of science and as head of the biochemical laboratory. Concurrently he was a professor of technical biochemistry at the D.I. Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology in Moscow (1929–1931) and at the Moscow Institute of Grain and Flour (1930–1931). During this period Oparin conducted biochemical research on tea, sugar, flour, and grains. He continued this practical work as professor at the Moscow Technical Institute of Food Production (1937–1949), where he also studied nutrition and vitamins.

In 1929 Bach became one of the first Communists elected to the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. When Bach headed the academy’s Laboratory of Biochemistry (1931–1935), he put Oparin in charge of scientific research; when he was director of the academy’s Institute of Biochemistry (1935–1946), Oparin was his associate director. Bach was academician-secretary of the chemical sciences division of the academy from 1939 through 1945; Oparin was elected a corresponding member of the academy’s mathematical and natural science division on 29 January 1939, in plant biochemistry. When Bach died in May 1946, his institute was renamed the A.N. Bach Institute of Biochemistry and Oparin was appointed its director, a post he held for the rest of his life. On 30 November 1946 Oparin was elevated to full academy membership in the division of biochemical sciences.

Origin of Life . Oparin’s first publication (1917) dealt with free amino groups in plants, and over the next two decades he published a number of scientific and popular articles on plant ferments and their role in metabolism. In addition to such research, however, propaganda, teaching, and administration took much of his time, and many of his publications were popular articles for newspapers or industrial magazines. Both lines of work came together in the central intellectual concern of his career, the problem of the origin of life.

In the early 1920’s many tracts were published as part of the government’s campaign to support materialism and undermine religion, and popular pamphlets on Darwinism, human evolution, and experimental biology abounded. Several dealt with the especially telling issue of the ultimate origin of life itself, but here materialists faced a vexing problem: Louis Pasteur, a hero of scientific medicine, had apparently disproved spontaneous generation in the nineteenth century; without it, however, there seemed no philosophically acceptable way to account for the origin of the primitive forms from which later life evolved. Oparin’s original treatment of the problem came out of this context.

In 1922, at a meeting of the Moscow Botanical Society, Oparin presented his first paper on the origin of life, but it has never been published and may no longer exist. In 1924, however, a reworked version was issued as a 71-page pamphlet by the propaganda outlet Moscow Worker. Opening with a history of the problem of spontaneous generation, Oparin’s brochure attacked vitalism. He dwelt on the similarity of protoplasm and colloidal gels, asserting that there is no difference between the living and the nonliving that cannot be fully accounted for by physicochemical laws. As regards spontaneous generation. Oparin found a way out of the apparent dilemma. He argued that the gradual accumulation and coagulation of hydrocarbons in the earth’s early history could have led to the spontaneous generation of colloidal gels with the basic properties of life, but once this life had appeared, further spontaneous generation was precluded because such organic materials would be consumed by the life that already existed.

Although hailed decades later by J. D. Bernal and J. B. S. Haldane, Oparin’s 1924 work went largely unnoticed at the time. He subsequently published brief accounts in Herald of the Communist Academy (1927), Under the Banner of Marxism (1928), and elsewhere, but he apparently did not resume serious work on the subject until around 1934 or 1935. By then, however, the Soviet ideological context had changed. During the period 1929–1933 a party line had been imposed on Soviet philosophy, resulting in a “dialectical materialism” that embraced certain general laws of natural development and castigated “mechanistic materialists” who reduced living phenomena to physics and chemistry. In 1936 Oparin published a 159-page book entitled Vozniknovenie zhini na zemle (“The Origin of Life on Earth”) that reflected these ideological changes. The work appeared in English translation in 1938 under a slightly misleading title, The Origin of Life, and almost immediately thereafter was translated into Japanese, Spanish, and several other languages.

Oparin’s 1936 book expanded and modified his earlier views in several important ways. First, he drew more heavily on the current international literature in astronomy, geochemistry, organic chemistry, and plant enzymology, citing recent works by Vladimir I. Vernadskii on the chemical evolution of the biosphere. Second, he expressed his views in the form of a dialectical materialist analysis that explicitly cited Friedrich Engels and attached spontaneous generation. He now saw life as a naturally emergent stage in the evolution of matter, one in which physicochemical laws had been supplemented by the “purely biological” laws of natural selection and metabolism. Finally, he drew upon H. G. Bungenberg de Jong’s work of the early 1930’s on colloidal coacervation, arguing that the formation of coacervate droplets by the electrostatic attraction of organic sols in the early seas provided a key requirement for the emergence of life: chemical pools separated by a membrane from the surrounding medium. Such droplets could selectively assimilate materials, and collect and accumulate catalysts and promoters that would accelerate chemical reactions. Although most such coacervates were short-lived, Oparin believed that those with the fastest rates of reaction, the most stable internal configurations, and the ability to grow and divide most rapidly would begin to undergo natural selection leading to more organized forms and eventually to primitive living systems.

The book’s second Russian edition (1941) added more than 100 pages of material, and its third edition (1957) added almost 200 more. Although these subsequent versions updated and amended Oparin’s theory, they all embodied the view that the central characteristic of life is metabolism, which gradually emerged in coacervates as a natural stage in the evolution of matter. The language of dialectical materialism became more prominent over time, and Oparin began to allude explicity to such dialectical laws as the interaction and unity of opposites (for instance, the droplet or organism versus its surroundings; anabolism versus catabolism) and the transition from quantitative to qualitative change (as when physicochemical laws become gradually supplemented by biological laws in the evolution of coacervates). Oparin also became increasingly hostile to genetics, berating it as “mechanistic”, and denied the growing claims that genes, viruses, and nucleic acids played a privileged role in the origin and evolution of life on the grounds that they require the existence of complex living systems to function. After World War II he declared Erwin Schrödinger’s What Is Life? to be “ideologically dangerous,” and became increasingly sympathetic to the views of Lysenko and other Michurinists.

A number of investigators in both the Soviet Union and the West have had difficulty replicating Oparin’s laboratory work on coacervate droplets, and recent international research on the origin of life has developed independently of Oparin’s specific biochemical findings and procedures, and along different lines. Nonetheless, his 1936 book is an enduring contribution to world science. By proposing a hypothetical but plausible scenario whereby metabolizing entities could gradually have emerged on a lifeless earth, he helped to make the origin of life a modern scientific problem.

Science, Politics, and Lysenkoism . It is not clear when and why Oparin became a supporter of Lysenko and his so-called Michurinist biology. In many ways the two had remarkably parallel careers: both rose in administrative importance after 1929 through their practical work: both developed theories in the 1920’s that were greatly expanded and popularized in the mid 1930’s; both infused their writings with ideological language and hewed to the Communist Party line in all matters, although neither was ever a party member: both were first elected to the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences in 1939 (the same year Stalin was elected): both gained enormous influence in 1948 and shared dominance over Soviet biology until 1955; both were rewarded with important political posts; hostile to genetics and molecular biology, and castigated them as mechanistic; both lost influence in Soviet science in the early 1960’s.

The available evidence suggests that philosophical, scientific, and political factors all may have played a role in shaping Oparin’s support for Lysenko. In the mid 1930’s Oparin took part in the ideological quickening of debate on which Lysenko’s support relied: dialectical materialist philosophy played a major role in Oparin’s expositions on science in general and his views on the origin of life in particular. His scientific work on plant physiology, enzymes, proteins, and the origin of life emphasized dynamic changes of metabolic chemical pools, which may have led to his hostility toward genetics and his sympathy with Lysenko’s metabolic concept of heredity. Finally, like his mentor and patron Bach, Oparin learned to survive and prosper by subordinating himself to political authorities. In the late 1930’s Bach signed newspaper articles supporting Lysenko and castigating Soviet geneticists for links with fascism, and Oparin may have followed Bach’s lead in this matter as he did in most others. Indeed, it is even possible that Oparin’s support was mere lip service motivated by fear or careerism. It is difficult to sort out the roles played by philosophy, science, politics, and ambition in Oparin’s support for Lysenko, however, because he was able to state that support with more scientific plausibility and philosophical sophistication than any other major Soviet scientist.

At a special session of the presidium of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences held on 24 August 1948, in the wake of Lysenko’s triumph at the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences earlier that month, Oparin was one of Lysenko’s strongest, most prestigious, and probably most sincere advocates. Nothing his own long-standing opposition to the views of T. H. Morgan, H. J. Muller, C. B. Bridges, and Erwin Schrödinger, and their Soviet supporters N. K. Kol’tsov, V. L. Ryzhkov, A. A. Malinovskii, and N. P. Dubinin, Oparin was able to brag, with some justice, that Michurinist biology prospered more in his Institute of Biochemistry than in any other institution within the academy’s division of biological sciences except Lysenko’s own Institute of Genetics. As a result of the session. Oparin replaced Pavlov’s student L. A. Orbeli as the division’s academician-secretary.

As the academy’s chief administrator of biology from late 1948 through 1955, Oparin oversaw the implementation of policies aimed at the liquidation of Soviet genetics in the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. During that period he wrote widely in support of Lysenko and Michurinism, and against genetics. He was also the chief public supporter of the cytological theories of Ol’ga Borisovna Lepeshinskaia, who had claimed that cells can form spontaneously from organic noncellular “living matter”. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, moves were under way to weaken Lysenko’s stranglehold on Soviet biology. By the end of 1955 more than 300 scientists had signed a petition demanding Oparin’s removal as academician-secretary of the academy’s biology division. He was replaced in early 1956 by Vladimir A. Engelhardt, a world-renowned muscle biochemist and a leading Soviet advocate of molecular biology.

Oparin greeted the explosive international growth of molecular biology in the 1950’s ambivalently and without enthusiasm. Although he had worked in the laboratory of Kossel, a pioneer in the study of nucleic acid structure, and although one might think that a rapid development of DNA research would be welcomed by a biochemist, Oparin severly criticized the “central dogma” and the idea of a “genetic code” as mechanistic reductionism. Even when it would have been ideologically acceptable and tactically useful to support molecular biology and genetics, he did not do so. As president and chairman of the Fifth International Congress of Biochemistry, held at Moscow in 1961, Oparin refused to permit the term “molecular biology” to be used in the title of any of its sections or publications. However, within his own institute, he did support the work of A. N. Belozerskii on plant nucleic acids (apparently interpreting it as a refutation of the idea of a genetic code), and during the 1950’s and 1960’s he coauthored papers on the behavior of DNA and RNA in coacervate droplets. Perhaps sensing a change in the politics of Soviet science, Oparin was reportedly neutral in the debates that finally led to Lysenko’s fall from dominance in 1964–1965.

Oparin’s international reputation for his work on the origin of life led to increased prestige and power at home, and his political reliability made him a suitable Soviet representative abroad. He was appointed to the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR (1951–1959) and served on its presidium (1955–1959). After 1948, at a time when foreign travel by Soviet scientists was a highly restricted political privilege, he traveled on official business not only to North Korea, Rumania, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and China, but also to Finland, Austria, France, Sweden, Britain, Japan, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States. He became an active Soviet representative in various international scientific and political organizations, notably the World Peace Council (1950–1959) and the World Federation of Scientists, of which he was vice president from 1952 to 1966.

For his work Oparin won various Soviet awards, including the Order of the Red Banner of Labor (1944), the Bach Prize (1950), the Mechnikov Medal (1960), the Order of Lenin (1964), Hero of Socialist Labor (1969), the Lenin Prize (1974), and the Lomonosov Gold Medal (1979). He became president of the International Biochemical Society in 1959, presided over its Moscow congress in 1961, and continued as vice president after 1962. In 1970 he became the first president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life. Oparin was awarded honorary degrees from Jena (1958), Rome (1961), and Poitiers (1963), and was elected a foreign member of the Finnish Chemical Society and of the national science academies of Bulgaria (1952), Czechoslovakia (1952), East Germany (1956), and, after 1964, Cuba, Spain, and Italy.

From 1965 through 1980, when the Soviet Union was striving to rebuild genetics and to create molecular biology, the Bach Institute remained the bastion of an older style of biochemistry and was soon eclipsed by other, newer research centers. Oparin continued as its director, although he was widely disliked by many Soviet scientists because of his involvement with Lysenkoism. Troubled by ill health, obesity, and growing deafness in his final years, he died, probably of a heart attack, shortly after being denied permission to attend a meeting in Israel.


I. Original Works. Oparin’s earliest statement on the origin of life is Proiskhozhdenie zhizni (Moscow, 1924), trans. by Ann Synge as “The Origin of Life,” in J. D. Bernal, The Origin of Life (London, 1967), 199–234. His subsequent articles on the subject include “Khimicheskaia teoriia proiskhozhdeniia zhizni” (The chemical theory of the origin of life), in Vestnik Kommunisticheskoi akademii, 1927, no.1, 229–243; and “Die Entstehung des Lebens vom chemischen Standpunkt,” in Unter dem Banner des Marxismus, 1928, no.3, 331–345.

Oparin’s classic book is Vozniknovenie zhini na zemle (The origin of life on earth: Moscow and Leningrad, 1936 [159 pp.] 2nd ed., 1941 [268 pp.] 3rd ed., 1957 [459 pp.]). The first edition appeared in English as The Origin of Life, Sergius Morgulis, trans. (New York, 1938; 2nd ed., 1953); it also appeared in Japanese (Tokyo, 1939), and in Spanish as El origen de la vida (Buenos Aires, 1940). The reworked and much enlarged third Russian edition appeared in English as The Origin of Life on the Earth, Ann Synge, trans. (Edinburgh, 1957). See also Vozniknovenie zhini na zemle: Trudy mezdunarodnogo simpoziuma, 19–24 avgusta 1957. International Union of Biochemistry, Symposium series, 1 (New York, 1959).

Oparin subsequently wrote three more popular books on the subject: Zhizn’, ee priroda, proiskhozhdenie i razvitie (Moscow, 1960; 2nd ed., 1968), trans. by Ann Synge as Life; Its Nature, Origin, and Development (Edinburth, 1962; New York, 1964); The Chemical Origin of Life, Ann Synge, trans. (Springfield, III., 1964); and Vozniknovenie i nachal’noe razvitie zhizni (Moscow, 1966), trans. by Eleanor Maass as Genesis and Evolutionary Development of Life (New York, 1968). For his strongest statement supporting Lysenko, see his remarks in Vestnik Akademü nauk SSSR, 1948, no. 9, 38–44.

II. Secondary Literature. For a list of Oparin’s publications and a brief scientific biography, see A/eksandr Lvanovich Oparin, O. V. Isakova, comp., Akademüa nauk SSSR, Materialy k biobibliografii unchenykh SSSR, ser, biokhimii, no. 6 (2nd ed.. Moscow, 1964; 3rd ed. 1979). For a popular biography, see V. M. Mikhailov, Put’ kistine (Path to the truth: Moscow, 1984). See also the discussions of Oparin in Mark B. Adams, “Genetics and Molecular Biology in Khrushchev’s Russia” (Harvard University, 1973); J. D. Bernal, The Origin of Life (London, 1967); John Farley, The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin (Baltimore, 1977), 163–187; Loren R. Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (New York, 1972), 257–296, and its 2nd ed., Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union (New York, 1987); and Gustav A. Wetter, Dialectical Materialism, Peter Heath, trans. (New York, 1958, 442–451).

Mark B. Adams