The name of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko conjures up images of fraudulent science and Stalinist repression. Lysenko is best known as a supporter of the theory of ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’, which holds that characteristics which a plant or animal has acquired during its life can be passed down to future generations. Lysenko denounced Soviet geneticists who claimed that genes, not environmental factors, determined characteristics. As a direct or indirect result of Lysenko’s denunciations, many of the Soviet Union’s leading geneticists were arrested and the development of Soviet genetics was held back for years.
For decades, geneticists rejected the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. However, as American scientist Loren Graham points out in his recent book Lysenko’s Ghost, discoveries in the relatively new field of epigenetics suggest that ‘the effects of an organism’s life experiences can in some instances become inheritable.’ According to epigenetics, ‘modifications to the DNA molecule that do not affect its sequence (such as the attachment of certain chemical groups) can affect gene activity, for example, by turning genes “on” or “off”. These modifications can be environmentally induced, and in some instances, they can be passed on to subsequent generations.’ For instance, grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the wartime famine in the Netherlands suffer from a range of medical problems which appear to be the result of chemicals which attached themselves to their grandmothers’ DNA during the famine.
All this prompts Graham to ask, ‘Was Lysenko right after all?’ To answer that question, Graham examines the history of the theory of inherited acquired characteristics, analyzes Lysenko’s work, and then puts it into the context of epigenetics.