In the year of his jubilee Prof. Atanas Atanassov was elected full member (academician) of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS). This well-deserved acknow-ledgement and high estimate regard not only his scientific activity but also his exceptionally fruitful organization of research at the high genetics levels. The creative activity of acad. Atanassov has been closely related to the research development periods over the past three decades in the field of biotechnology plant genetics and the establishing of the scientific structures for these researches within the Agricultural Scientific System in Bulgaria. These years have been filled with efforts for mastering the most up-to-date advances in this field and defining the right ideas and methods for the research work carried out in this modern scientific field.
He was born on 14 August 1943 in the town of Dulgopol. Having taken a degree at the Agronomy Faculty of the Higher Agricultural Institute in Sofia in 1967, he started work as a research worker at the Sugar Beet Research Institute in the town of Soumen. In 1974 he moved to the Genetic Institute at BAS, Sofia. He wrote his thesis and defended a PhD thesis in 1976, while his DrSc degree was achieved in 1989. He got a habilitation as Senior Research Associate 2nd degree in 1982, and Senior Research Associate Ist degree in 1989. In 1998 he as elected correspondent member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS).
Similar was the sequence of the managerial positions taken by Dr. Atanassov. From 1967 to 1969 he was head of the Tissue Culture Laboratory at the Sugar Beet Research Institute; between 1969 and 1974 he was leader of the dynamic team of cell genetics at the Genetic Institute of BAS.
In 1985 he established and took the lead of a Genetic 'Engineering Problem-oriented Laboratory at the Agricultural Academy. In 1989, on the proposal of the Agricultural Academy management, the Ministerial Council transformed the laboratory into Genetic Engineering Institute with Prof. Atanassov as director.
In 2003 Prof. Atanassov became the initiator for establishing the National Agrobiotechnological Park together with the Biological Faculty at Sofia University.
Over the same period Prof. Atanassov has attended specializations at prestigious scientific centres in France, Russia, Canada, Hungary, Belgium and the USA.
The scientific research achievements of Acad. Atanassov have been published in 398 scientific works, of which 187 – in foreign journals, proceedings of international congresses and symposia. This list needs to be completed by 6 scientific monographs, 3 single-authorship books of monograph nature, 9 chapters in monographs (8 of which published in abroad), 2 training guides and 4 scientific methodic leaflets. The popularity of acad. Atanassov's work could be judged by the great number of citations in Bulgarian and foreign specialized literature. In only about 70 scientific journals with impact factor there are 490 references to 52 of the scientific works of acad. Atanassov. One of his fundamental works has been quoted in 121 foreign literature sources.
The development of Dr. Atanassov as a scientist and his researches have been closely connected with the Bulgarian genetic development stages at the cell and molecular level and the genetic basis of plant breeding.
In the late 60s he produced a number of researches that contributed to the formation of methodic and practical approaches for development of technologies for tissue culture utilization in plants micro propagation.
Originality and priority are the characteristics of his researches on the formation of methods and specialized technologies for in vitro regeneration of somatic and generative tissues of sugar beet and its propagation. These researches provide an important methodical and scienti-fic foundation in this essential field of genetics. On these grounds acad. Atanassov performed more profound investigations on the issues of in vitro regeneration in tissues from pollen and protoplasts. A new stage in his research were his developments on methodological and methodic problems in in vitro regeneration of somatic and male sexual cells. For these model studies acad. Atanassov utilized economically important species such as triticale, peas, beans, sunflower, lucerne, etc. These advanced studies were of priority nature and represented considerable theoretical contribution. They qualify acad. Atanassov as one of the creators of this field and provide evidence of his capability to generate ideas and conduct large scale, profound investigations.
A specific section of the researches of academician Atanassov were dedicated on the improvement of genetic breeding programmes for economically important crops. Part of these researches included teams of cytologists, biochemists and physiologists. Gene plasm of disease-resistant, drought and frost hardy crops was employed. Successful experiments were made for introducing genetic variability for achieving better productivity, early ripening and higher contents of biologically active substances in medicinal plants and herbs. In the same field were researches aimed at clarifying the reasons leading to tissues or callous cultures (originating from them) quick loss of the potential for secondary producing of whole isolated plants. The effect of some specific non-genetic factors such as age of source tissues, their fertile status and subculture duration. The data obtained showed that the regeneration mechanisms through organogenesis are largely more unstable than the soma-tic embryogenesis.
These fundamental findings for sugar beet were later confirmed for lucerne and barley, too. It should be highlighted that the researches in the species Medicago and Vitis vinifera were subsequently widely quoted in literature at home and abroad. Considerable contribution to gene transfer methodology has been made by them on the basis of somatic embryogenesis. The theoretical conclusions drawn were later confirmed by Atanassov's developments on direct and indirect somatic embryogenesis in lucerne, carnation, vine and rose. The results obtained from the researches proved that under the guidance of acad. Atanassov one of the leading schools in plants somatic embryogenesis was established. A confirmation was obtained of the possibility to unify somatic embryogenesis irrespective of the species appurtenance of the genotype. Original methods were developed under the leadership of acad. Atanassov, which allows for effective solution of the problems of incompatibility and sterility in individual hybrids of maize, sunflower and vines. This provided opportunities for creating of new valuable forms with high resistance to drought (in maize) and diseases (in sunflower and vines).
Using the same methods and led by acad. Atanassov, research teams have created important muthagenic forms of tobacco with resistance to streptomycin and leaf spots, somaclonal forms of barley of high productivity, early maturity, disease and drought hardiness.
In order to improve the materials assessment effectiveness at genetic level acad. Atanassov conducted studies using molecular methods. These researches laid the foundation of DNA markers in the research programmes of the Genetic Engineering Institute. Using these methods, Aegilops kotschyi genetic material with powdery mildew resistance has been identified and then transferred to wheat by means of interspecific hybridization.
The researches of acad. Atanassov in the field of androgenesis in breeding programmes for various crops are another point worthy of attention. On this basis were created the cultivars of tobacco Biopreslovna cv. and Indian thorn-apple cv. Inka. His studies in this direction have shown very low frequency of inducing haploid plants in sugar beet, sunflower and triticale.
A new stage in acad. Atanassov's research work started after his specialization in Ghent (Belgium) with Prof. Mark Van Monteru. For Bulgarian science this launched the era of genetic engineering and the use of DNA marker systems.
A succession of researches have shown that breeding at cellular and molecular level can supplement the classical breeding methods at various levels of the breeding process and thus enhance its reactivity. At this basis a research team led by acad. Atanassov established contacts with similar breeding research institutes in Bulgaria and in abroad. It should be pointed out that the DNA marker systems using the methods developed by acad. Atanassov have become a separate research field and found application in the sunflower breeding practices in Bulgaria. By choosing suitable DNA molecular markers (RELP, RAPD, SSR) proofs were obtained of the unique nature of cytoplasmic male sterility, created by distant hybridization in sunflower and tomato, and by somatic hybridization of tobacco.
During the past year acad. Atanassov leads a team working steadily on DNA analysis methods, genotype marking and defining on the grounds of k-DNA, or more precisely of separate expressed sequences (EST.S), which are expected to be directly related with the phenotypic expression of individual important breeding traits. This introduces a basically new element in the assessment and selection of the breeding material at DNA level. Under the guidance of acad. Atanassov comprehensive breeding technologies have been developed both for mono utilization in clonal micro propagation, cell mutagenesis, somatic hybridization, DNA markers and gene transfer, and for their combined utilization. These methods have been discussed in a large number of review papers.
A detailed description of the problems of methods and methodology with respect to the use of biotechnological methods in breeding has been published in the scientific monograph of acad. Atanassov Biotechnology in Plant Breeding, translated in Russian and published in large total print.
The third stage in the research of acad. Atanassov has been set in the field of genomics. These are studies for creating effective gene transfer systems, also methods of cloning, sequencing and expression of genes. Other researches of interest are related to developing of effective systems for gene transfer in Bulgarian tobacco cultivars, lucerne, carnation, sugar beer, tomato, apple, plum and vine. In the role of vectors Agrobacterium tumefaciens and Agrobacterium rhyzogeneses were used. They served for the creation of unique forms and lines for breeding purposes in a large number of culture plants.
The high scientific experience and erudition of acad. Atanassov, his excellent talent of organizer and international acknowledgement have been the cause for the large number of scienti-fic projects where he has been either a leader of or a participant in. Thus, only between 1992 and 2003 he has taken part in 24 projects financed by international organizations and foundations. Fifteen out of them he has been the general leader of, in four of them he has been the leader of the Bulgarian team and in 5 – a participant. Six projects of that total are still ongoing.
The outstanding qualities of acad. Atanassov as a researcher and scientific research organizer have brought about his great popularity among the International Scientific Society of Genetic Engineers.
Over the 1971–2002 period he has delivered, as invited speaker, 104 lectures in 26 countries. In the recent five years he has presented 56 scientific papers 9 of which in the USA, 8 in Japan, 8 in Germany, 7 in Russia, 7 in Canada and 6 in France.
Academician Atanassov has an exceptionally abundant activity record as organizer of researches and popularizer of our national agricultural science achievements. He is member of the editorial boards of 7 foreign and 4 Bulgarian scientific journals. He is the editor-in-chief of the Bulgarian journal Biotechnology and Biotechnology Equipment and deputy editor-in-chief of Bulgarian Journal of Agricultural Science.
The scientific activity of acad. Atanassov has received high international recognition. He is member of prestigious foreign academies and universities. He has been elected member of the Russian Agricultural Academy and the Ukrainian Agricultural Academy. In 1994 he was chosen professor and delivered lectures at the De Montfort University in the UK. He is member of six more international scientific organizations such as the International Tissue Culture Organization (IPICA); the Association for Scientific Research (EUCARPIA); the International society for plant-microbial interaction ((IS-MPMS); the European society for new methods in Agricultural Scientific Research (ESNA), the European Plant Society (EPSO). Acad. Atanassov is a member of a great number of national and international expert groups and consultant councils such as: expert group for implementation of between-government protocol of Cartaghena Montreal; consultation group at EURAGRI for working out a strategy for the development of agriculture on European scale. He is a member of the Consultation group at EU (Belgium) planning a development strategy for biotechnologies and life sciences; he is a committee member for choosing the winner of Japan Prize, he is an expert at FAO (Rome, Italy) and at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna (Austria).
Since 1989 to date Prof. Atanassov has been member of the managing council of the International Centre of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnologies in Trieste, Italy; he is the coordinator of the Programme for plant biotechnologies for the Balkan region countries; he is the leader of a centre at the Norman Borlaung International Institute of Plant Studies at the De Montfort University in the town of Leicester, UK.
For his scientific research activities Acad. Atanassov has received a large number of prestigious national and international distinctions: Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Agricultural Production and Veterinary Medicine in Napoca, Roumania; medal of honour from EGE University in Turkey; honours diploma from EUREKA, Brussels; diploma of excellence for studies in the field of biodiversity from the University in Florence, Italy.
Among the Bulgarian distinctions acad. Atanassov has received is the one from the Ministry of Education and Science (for active participation in the 5th framework Programme); congratulatory address from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, etc.
For outstanding achievements in the joint scientific research between the institute directed by acad. Atanassov and American scientific centres the US Embassy in Sofia granted the AgroBioInstitute the sum of USD 200 000 in 2001 as donation from the US Government.
It was a special merit of acad. Atanassov that the AgroBioInstitute was chosen as centre of excellence. This title was attributed by a special committee at the European Union. The Institute was ranked first among 176 candidates in Eastern and Central Europe. The grant received was 256 000 euro. This high recognition is undoubtedly largely due to the Institute's founder and current director, acad. Atanassov.
Acad. Atanassov has had a long-standing university teaching history. Since 1982 he has been part-time lecturer at the Biological Faculty of Sofia University. From the same year he has been reading a course of lectures in plant cellular and genetic engineering at the Plovdiv Agricultural University and the Chemico-technological University in Sofia. Under his supervision as director of studies a total of 23 PhD theses have been defended and another 21 diploma papers. A large number of young Bulgarian and foreign scientists have conducted specializations under his guidance at the Genetic Engineering Institute.
The high scientific erudition of acad. Atanassov and his exceptional qualities as organizer lie in the basis of the international collaboration between our AgroBioInstitute and significant international scientific centres. Suffice it to mention the agreements between the AgroBioInstitute and the University of Wageningen (Holland), with the Kobe University (Japan), the Nevada University (USA), the Cytology and Genetics Institute in Novosibirsk (Russia) to get an idea of the wide international recognition of the genetic school established by acad. Atanassov. The list has to be supplemented by the establishment of Norman Burlaug Plant Research Institute with participants from Bulgaria, United Kingdom, China and Czech Republic. In recent years an original and efficient form of scientific collaboration has been the formation of centers of excellence network between institutes and universities in Europe and our AgroBioInstitute. All this proves the special merits of acad. Atanassov for organizing and effecting scientific collaboration of strategic value.
On the eve of his 60th anniversary acad. Atanassov put serious efforts in setting up the new experimental base of the AgroBioInstitute. He initiated the establishment of the first Bulgarian Agrobiotechnological park as a form of integration between the AgroBioInstitute and the Biological Faculty of the Sofia State University. This is a new way of conducting effective research activity at high level, but also for initiating the building of new production structures using the scientific products. This pioneer activity of acad. Atanassov and the scientists working within the system of the Agrobiotechnological park deserve our deep respect and appreciation.
Let the coming years bring acad. Atanassov and the team of scientists success and strength for overcoming the hardships of a rather inefficiently conducted transition of the national economy including the agricultural production.