New hope for Russia’s rare plant reserve – Features – ABC Environment (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Posted: April 15, 2012 in Economy and Resources, Environment, Resources, Tajikistan, Wildlife

IN 1929, RUSSIAN botanist Nikolai Vavilov travelled to Central Asia on one of the many seed-collecting expeditions that took him to five continents over more than two decades. In what is now present-day Kazakhstan, Vavilov – the father of modern seed banks – found forests of wild as well as cultivated varieties of fruit. Around the city of Alma Ata, he was astonished by the profusion of apple trees, writing in his journal that he believed he had “stumbled upon the centre of origin for the apple, where wild apples were difficult to even distinguish from those which were being cultivated”.

 

A glorious past

The station is undeniably dilapidated, and little plant breeding or research into plant genomes is now carried out there. A visit by American scientists from the US Department of Agriculture, as long ago as 1975, reported “the buildings are old and run down and poorly equipped… the laboratories are grossly inadequate by US standards”. Stripped of funds since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, parts of the station lie virtually abandoned. In other areas, staff do little more than maintain the collection of old varieties. Even so, the collection is unique and potentially of great value.

In recent years, nobody has crosschecked the station’s plants with other collections outside Russia. Nonetheless, international authorities say the collection probably contains many genes of potentially great value in developing new commercial varieties. Many of its varieties are unusually hardy in cold temperatures and are disease-resistant. “It is possible that some samples are being duplicated elsewhere, but the majority are not,” says the Director General of the Vavilov Institute, Nikolai Dzyubenko.

“It would be a major tragedy if the collection were lost,” says one of the world’s leading strawberry breeders, Jim Hancock of Michigan State University. Norman Looney, president of the International Society for Horticultural Science, says the station’s collection “represents work performed over more than 150 years and has survived both climatic and political catastrophe. It is the largest such collection in Europe and the only one at this far-north latitude.”

Vavilov began collecting plants across Asia in 1916, working first on wild and early cultivated varieties of wheat and other grain crops, before moving on to other crops and other continents and establishing the research stations that housed his collections. Through his travels in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, Japan, China, Korea, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America, Vavilov realised that cradles of botanical diversity were most often found in mountainous regions, where the many changes in topography and climate led to the evolution and development of highly diverse species.

The Pavlovsk experimental station, established in 1926, is one of 11 seed banks that Vavilov created across the former Soviet Union. In the 1930s he worked diligently to expand his collections, but as the decade wore on he ran afoul of Joseph Stalin for disputing the views of the quack scientist, Trofim Lysenko, a Stalin favourite who maintained that characteristics acquired through the environment could be inherited. Vavilov was arrested by Stalin’s secret police and thrown into the gulag, where he died of starvation in 1943. During the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II, scientists at Vavilov’s institute protected its collections, with some succumbing to starvation rather than consuming the collection’s rice and other crops.

Vavilov’s successors continue his work to this day, particularly in Siberia and the Russian Far East, where wild berries remain an important part of the local diet. Sergey Alexanian, vice director of International Relations for the Vavilov Institute, says “there have been hundreds of explorations involving thousands of researchers.”

via New hope for Russia’s rare plant reserve – Features – ABC Environment (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

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