Categories
Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 4)

This is the fourth and final of several posts wherein I explore the fascinating and tragic story of the world’s first seed bank and its heroic creator. My thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for sharing this story with me.

Posthumous Rehabilitation

Nowadays, Vavilov is revered as a hero in Russia—at least by most people. Despite its ups and downs, his bureau still exists, renamed as the N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR in Russian). Scientists across the globe have embraced Vavilov’s insight that genetic biodiversity is the key to a healthy food future. This has led to the founding of even bigger and more sophisticated agricultural stockpiles, such as the so-called doomsday seed vault in Svalbard, Norway. Fittingly, the VIR has donated seeds and other specimens to Svalbard—presumably many of them dating back to Vavilov’s early collecting trips.

First USSR stamp honoring N.I. Vavilov in 1977. Source — Wikipedia

Aftermath

The passion that sustained the scientists at the Bureau through the Seige of Leningrad continues today. Among Vavilov’s most productive and exciting seed-gathering expeditions took him in 1929 to Central Asia and the territory now occupied by present-day Kazakhstan. In biodiverse lands around Alma Ata and the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains, he discovered the world’s richest concentration of fruit trees, including plum, peach and apricot; but in especially terrific profusion were the apple trees. In retrospect, this discovery confirmed his theory about the origins of culitvated species.

Wild abundance in the Tian Shan Mountains. Source — The Fatherland of Apples.

The Experimental Pavlovsk Station

Many of the seeds Vavilov collected during this 1929 expedition were eventually planted and grown out at the Experimental Pavlovsk Station, which lies just south of Leningrad, now Saint-Petersburg.

When the Nazis invaded the USSR, and the front lines of the war approaching very close to Pavlovsk, Vavilov’s colleagues, assistants and students moved as much of the Pavlovsk Station’s collection as possible to the basement of the Plant Industry Institute in the center of Leningrad. There they safeguarded the collections throughout the entire Siege. 

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an immediate inquiry into the Pavlovsk research station being turned into private housing. Photograph: Frans Lanting/Corbis. From an article by Fred Pearce in The Guardian UK.

Ironically, after surviving the Nazis, WWII, and the downfall of its creator, the Experimental Pavlovsk Station fell into disrepair with the fall of the Soviet empire. Then in the early 2000s, it almost fell prey to land developers. An impassioned international campaign on Twitter resulted in a stay of execution by then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. According to a scant entry in Wikipedia, in April 2012 the Russian government took formal action to preserve this important genetic repository and stop the land from being conveyed to private interests for development.

The passion to protect this precious legacy comes from its uniqueness. More than 90% of the plants are found in no other research collection or seed bank. Its seeds and berries are thought to posess traits that could be crucial to maintaining productive fruit harvests in many parts of the world as climate change and a rising tide of disease, pests and drought weaken the varieties farmers now grow. At stake, say campaigners for the station, are more than 5,000 varieties of seeds and berries from dozens of countries, including more than 100 varieties each of gooseberries and raspberries. Google searches for news related to the Pavlovsk Station turned up no new results, so let’s hope it is still intact.

On the former Melchior Philibert farm in Charly, the Melchior Farm in France experiments with food seeds collected by Vavilov.

Legacy

Seed banks around the world continue to benefit from Vavilov’s collections. In France, the Lyon branch of the Vavilov seed conservatory has been funded by the EU to grow out a thousand fruit, a hundred varieties of vegetables, cereals, and aromatic herbs, some of which are almost five centuries old. More than 300 varieties from Lyon, that are seldom cultivated today, were discovered in the Vavilov seedbank of Saint-Petersburg and will thus come back to life.

As modern commodified agriculture continues to come under threat from climate change, the seeds Vavilov collected, and his staff safeguarded, may hold the key to our future food security.

The resource list below provides more information.

References

  1. Nikolai Vavilov
  2. The Tragedy of the World’s First SeedBank
  3. Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov (1887-1943)
  4. The tragic tale of Nikolai Vavilov
  5. The Seeds of Life — Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and the Fight for the Centers of Origins of Plant Diversity and Food Security
  6. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry
  7. Institute of Plant Industry
  8. Federal Research Center, N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR), Ministry of science and higher education
  9. The Development of Botany in the Soviet Union by Slavomil Hejný
  10. Russian famine of 1921–1922
  11. The Law of Homologous Series in Variation by Professor N. I. Vavilov, Director of the Bureau of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, Petrograd, Russia.
  12. Homologous Series, Law of
  13. Revisiting N.I. Vavilov’s “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation” (1922)
  14. Vavilov : Une banque de semences à Lyon pour préserver la biodiversité
  15. Beyond the Gardens: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
  16. Impact: science et société, UNESCO Bibliothèque Numérique, pages 141 à 149
  17. Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  18. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  19. Seed banks: saving for the future
  20. Russia’s Vavilov institute, guardian of world’s lost plants
  21. CRBA L’institut Vavilov
  22. Russie : Campagne pour sauver la station expérimentale de Pavlovsk
  23. Une collection de 5000 variétés de petits fruits menacée de disparition en Russie à l’Institut Vavilov !
  24. Une oasis de la biodiversité menacée par les pelles mécaniques
  25. Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaign
  26. Les végétaux du futur poussent à Charly
  27. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
Categories
Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 3)

This is the third of several posts wherein I explore the fascinating and tragic story of the world’s first seed bank and its heroic creator. My thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for sharing this story with me.

Nearly 3 million people were trapped in Leningrad during the siege. Only 800,000 survived. From TASS/Getty Images.

The Siege of Leningrad

Meanwhile, things were grim back at the Bureau. In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Leningrad was a major target of the Germans—in part because of Vavilov’s bureau. Nazi scientists appreciated the power of genetics – to a fault. (They essentially committed the opposite error of Lysenko in arguing that nurturing and environment counted for nothing and genes alone determine our fate.) The Nazis knew that Vavilov had gathered a priceless trove of agricultural riches and they wanted it!

Imagine the morale at the Bureau. Their boss had already been disappeared, and their own government had demonized them and called them traitors for their research. With Nazis marching on Leningrad, eager to steal their life’s work, who wouldn’t despair?

Then things got worse. The Siege of Leningrad dragged on for nearly 900 days. Instead of shells and guns, the Nazi’s main weapon was the very thing Vavilov had worked his whole life to prevent—famine. They tried to starve the Russians into submission.

Illustration by J. S. Lawson of wild pears collected in central Asia, one of six panels Vavilov gave to pomologist Richard Wellington at the International Genetics Congress in 1932. From Biodiversity Heritage Library.

As supplies dwindled, Leningrad’s residents started hunting dogs and cats. Soon they were reduced to eating lipstick, leather hats, and fur coats.

The only food in the whole city lay inside the Bureau. Incredibly, though, the scientists there never dipped into their stores to ease their hunger pangs. They were starving while surrounded by food—they worked with food, thought about food, touched food every day. Yet none of them ever put a morsel to their lips. As one later said, “It was hard to walk. It was unbearably hard to get up in the morning, [even] to move your hands and feet . . . but it was not in the least difficult to refrain from eating up the collection.” This wasn’t just stirring rhetoric, either. One emaciated scientist actually died at his desk, holding a packet of nutritious peanuts in his hand.

While Americans are familiar with one or two varieties of peanut, farmers in other parts of the world have been able to develop hundreds of varieties thanks to the peanut’s natural ability to shuffle its two distinct subgenomes to produce new traits. These are some of the peanuts grown by the Caiabí people who live on the Ilha Grande, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Peanut is very important for them and they cultivate diverse types, each one with its use, name and story. (Photos by Fábio de Oliveira Freitas). From an article on UGA Today, University of Georgia.

How could they fight off such temptation? First, they were thinking about the world after the war. They knew they would be able to help nations to get back on their feet and feed their people, especially in places where crops had been wiped out. They were also looking at the broader sweep of human history. Ever since the first farmers planted seeds some 10,000 years ago, there’s been an unbroken chain of crop plantings through time. The bureau scientists saw themselves as stewards of this heritage—arguably the most important heritage of humankind. Eating the seeds would have been tantamount to snapping that chain.

So the scientists waited, and they gradually died. A rice scientist, a potato scientist, the peanut scientist clutching that packet, and six more. In all, 700,000 people starved in Leningrad during the 872-day siege. But it’s hard to find any deaths more poignant than those nine food scientists.

The story continues in our next post. Meantime, please find below a list of references for more reading.

References

  1. Nikolai Vavilov
  2. The Tragedy of the World’s First SeedBank
  3. Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov (1887-1943)
  4. The tragic tale of Nikolai Vavilov
  5. The Seeds of Life — Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and the Fight for the Centers of Origins of Plant Diversity and Food Security
  6. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry
  7. Institute of Plant Industry
  8. Federal Research Center, N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR), Ministry of science and higher education
  9. The Development of Botany in the Soviet Union by Slavomil Hejný
  10. Russian famine of 1921–1922
  11. The Law of Homologous Series in Variation by Professor N. I. Vavilov, Director of the Bureau of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, Petrograd, Russia.
  12. Homologous Series, Law of
  13. Revisiting N.I. Vavilov’s “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation” (1922)
  14. Vavilov : Une banque de semences à Lyon pour préserver la biodiversité
  15. Beyond the Gardens: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
  16. Impact: science et société, UNESCO Bibliothèque Numérique, pages 141 à 149
  17. Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  18. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  19. Seed banks: saving for the future
  20. Russia’s Vavilov institute, guardian of world’s lost plants
  21. CRBA L’institut Vavilov
  22. Russie : Campagne pour sauver la station expérimentale de Pavlovsk
  23. Une collection de 5000 variétés de petits fruits menacée de disparition en Russie à l’Institut Vavilov !
  24. Une oasis de la biodiversité menacée par les pelles mécaniques
  25. Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaign
  26. Les végétaux du futur poussent à Charly
  27. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
Categories
Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 2)

This is the second of several posts wherein I explore the fascinating and tragic story of the world’s first seed bank and its heroic creator. My thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for sharing this story with me.

Wheat diversity in Azerbaijan. From a 2012 paper by lead author A. Aliyeva, DOI: 10.5829/idosi.aejaes.2012.12.10.6680.

Theories on Genetic Diversity

In the course of his expeditions, Vavilov developed several important theories. The first he called “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation”. Appearing at the 3rd Russian congress for plant-breeding in Saratov, Vavilov drew on the work of Mendel and Quetelet to propose that closely related species and genera are characterized by similar homologous series in their genetic variability. For example, if a species of wheat is seen to exhibit branching and spikelets in its seed heads, we can reasonably expect the same kinds of traits to appear in related grain species like rye. The paper he published on this subject in 1922 refined this theory into two parts: : (a) similar morphological traits occur in different groups of plants; and (b) the set of traits constitutes a series that is a signature of a particular variety of plant.

This law is still enormously important for selective breeding of both plants and animals. Knowing that similar genetic and morphological traits can be found in related species means breeders can significantly narrow their search for desired characters and variants.

Maize diversity in Vavilov’s office. Photo by Luigi Guarino, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants

Starting in 1926, Vavilov formalized his observations about plant origins. He proposed that the areas with the most diversity of a plant variety and its wild relatives indicate where humans first cultivated these plants. According to Vavilov, these areas of first cultivation represent the centers of evolutionary origin of some plant varieties. The center of origin of a particular variety of wheat, for example, would be the place where a diversity of genetic relatives–especially undomesticated weedy relatives–of that variety would exist. Unlike previous theories on this subject, Vavilov used traits like the number of chromosomes in the cells of organisms within a species to characterize and categorize genetic diversity within species.

From WAMU 88.5, American University Radio: “A Map Of Where Your Food Originated May Surprise You”.

Initially, Vavilov recognized five centres of origin (southwestern Asia, southeastern Asia, the Mediterranean coast, South America, and Mexico), with several sub-centres. He later modified this to seven primary centres of origin. His theory had little influence until after WWII, which it was translated into English. Since then, it has continued to influence both agricultural scholars and others interested in genetic origins.

One of Vavilov’s most cited works is a posthumous publication, The Origin, Variation, Immunity and Breeding of Cultivated Plants, published in English in 1951. In this work Vavilov argued that diversity of plant varieties was not evenly distributed throughout the world, and that the centers of origin of a species contained the most genetic diversity related to the original variety. This theory is now widely accepted. For example, Bryan Sykes drew heavily on this theory for his bestseller “The Seven Daughters of Eve”, which explores human genetic ancestry.

Downfall

In 1927 Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, a public rival of Vavilov’s, was recognized in the national newspaper for his skills in plant breeding. Vavilov followed Lysenko’s work, but soon realized that Lysenko lacked a formal scientific education and was unaware of modern genetic concepts. Lysenko insisted that if an organism acquired some new trait during its lifetime, this quality could be passed directly to its descendants. While today we have a more nuanced view of epigenetic heritability, Lysenko’s views were not at all nuanced and flew in the face of orthodox Darwinian theory.  He sent billions of “counter-revolutionary” wheat plants to be “re-educated” in Siberia. (Quote from Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, page 433.) Sadly, the wheat plants were resistant to re-education, but not to cold. They mostly died and the Soviet Union was forced to import ever larger quantities of wheat.

Trofim Lysenko, 1938. Wikimedia Commons

(Indeed, a 19th Century German geneticist named August Weismann had definitively proved that acquired traits are not heritable. He cut off the tails of 901 mice and their offspring for five generations. As he predicted, not one of the successive generations of mice was born tailless, or even with shorter tails.)

Despite his scientific hokum, Lysenko’s views found favour at the highest level because they dovetailed so nicely with communist educational principles. A major tenet of Soviet theory was that nurture would always triumph over nature (genetics). Eventually Lysenko used his influence to become the head of Soviet agriculture, at which point he pushed to outlaw genetics research and education in the Soviet Union. He declared that anyone who didn’t renounce the science would be arrested and thrown in jail.

Arrest & Imprisonment

Already under suspicion for his bourgeois background, one day in 1940, while he was collecting seeds in Ukraine, Soviet security agents arrested Vavilov and whisked him off to the Gulag. Not even his wife and children knew exactly where he ended up. The arrest left his colleagues at the Bureau of Applied Botany trembling.

Vavilov’s mugshot. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Народный комиссариат внутренних дел), abbreviated NKVD (НКВД) – Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (Moscow) (Центральный архив ФСБ РФ (Москва)) Institute of Plant Industry (Всероссийский институт растениеводства имени Н. И. Вавилова) Official photo from the file of the investigation. From Wikipedia.

Gulag interrogators grilled Vavilov mercilessly, often for 12 hours straight. They were determined to make him confess to the “crime” of not conforming his science to their politics. But as one historian commented, “Vavilov, unlike Galileo . . . refused to repudiate his beliefs.”

Infuriated, Gulag administrators tried to starve Vavilov into submission. Day after day, they gave him nothing but mashed cabbage and moldy flour. The man who had sampled wild apples in Kazakhstan, wild barley in Ethiopia, and wild potatoes in Chile was reduced to eating flavorless mush, and very little of it. His muscles wasted, his cheeks collapsed inward, boils erupted on his skin. He had labored for decades to end famine, and finally succumbed to starvation himself in January 1943. He was 55 years old.

The story continues in our next post. Meantime, please find below a list of references for more reading.

References

  1. Nikolai Vavilov
  2. The Tragedy of the World’s First SeedBank
  3. Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov (1887-1943)
  4. The tragic tale of Nikolai Vavilov
  5. The Seeds of Life — Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and the Fight for the Centers of Origins of Plant Diversity and Food Security
  6. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry
  7. Institute of Plant Industry
  8. Federal Research Center, N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR), Ministry of science and higher education
  9. The Development of Botany in the Soviet Union by Slavomil Hejný
  10. Russian famine of 1921–1922
  11. The Law of Homologous Series in Variation by Professor N. I. Vavilov, Director of the Bureau of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, Petrograd, Russia.
  12. Homologous Series, Law of
  13. Revisiting N.I. Vavilov’s “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation” (1922)
  14. Vavilov : Une banque de semences à Lyon pour préserver la biodiversité
  15. Beyond the Gardens: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
  16. Impact: science et société, UNESCO Bibliothèque Numérique, pages 141 à 149
  17. Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  18. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  19. Seed banks: saving for the future
  20. Russia’s Vavilov institute, guardian of world’s lost plants
  21. CRBA L’institut Vavilov
  22. Russie : Campagne pour sauver la station expérimentale de Pavlovsk
  23. Une collection de 5000 variétés de petits fruits menacée de disparition en Russie à l’Institut Vavilov !
  24. Une oasis de la biodiversité menacée par les pelles mécaniques
  25. Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaign
  26. Les végétaux du futur poussent à Charly
  27. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
Categories
Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 1)

Over the next few posts, I will explore the fascinating and tragic story of the world’s first seed bank and its heroic creator. My thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for sharing this story with me.

Saving the planet’s plant diversity. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and his labor of love. From a post by Thor Hatten on Medium.

The name Nikolai Vavilov is virtually unknown in the west today, which is a shame because he started the world’s first seed bank and developed theories about genetic diversity that is still valid today.

Born to a merchant family in Moscow in 1887, Vavilov grew up at a time when famine regularly visited the Russian countryside. A famine in 1891-92 caused an estimated 300,000 deaths and is credited with having given new life to the Russian Marxist movement. The young Vavilov heard stories of privation from his father and determined to dedicate his life to eradicating hunger. He entered the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy (now the Russian State Agrarian University – Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy) in 1906 and became known for carrying a pet lizard in his pocket wherever he went.

There are no known photos of Vavilov’s pet lizard. This image is courtesy of Pravin Gangurde on Unsplash.

Early Years and Influences

Before the outbreak of WWI, he was travelling through Europe and collaborating with British biologist William Bateson, himself a pioneer in genetics, on studies of plant immunity. Following the establishment of the USSR, Vavilov taught agronomy at University of Saratov before being named director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad, where he served from 1924 until 1935. His extensive international collaborations included work with Canadian phytopathologist Margaret Newton, who was an expert on wheat stem rust. The early years of the Soviet Republic were characterized by food insecurity. Collectivization and drought combined to cause widespread famine. In 1921-1923, about 16 million people may have been affected by famine and up to 5 million died. These circumstances must have reinforced Vavilov’s commitment to eliminating hunger through better agriculture.

Image from Centre for Food Safety “6 Tips for Saving Seeds

Guiding Principles

Vavilov’s reasoning was elegant in its simplicity and still holds today. He figured that modern agricultural crops lacked resilience due to inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity. So, much like agronomists today, he set out to find the wild antecedents of important food crops, mainly cereals, so he could reintroduce genetic diversity and breed more robust food plants.

Even in the 1920s, Vavilov’s search for wild food plants was a race against time and loss of biodiversity due to human development. He eventually made 115 seed collecting trips to 64 countries on five different continents. The many seeds, grains, fruits, nuts, and tubers he collected all found a home at the Academy in Leningrad, making it one of the world’s first seed banks. By 1931 the Bureau’s seed bank contained more than 10 million varieties of seeds.

As one historian wrote of Vavilov’s collection, “some [seeds were] dull-coated while others glistened like jewels. . . . The tubers, roots, and bulbs came in all sorts of textures, from knobby and gnarled to as smooth and burnished as a clay pot.” Fruits collected “exuded nearly every fragrance imaginable to a perfume chemist—musky, fermented, citric, and floral.”

Vavilov didn’t just collect seeds. He also understood the importance of growing them out. Seeds, tubers and so on were sent out to fields, orchards and paddies around the vast Soviet empire where they were grown by a small army of technicians. The resulting crops were harvested and then sent back to the Institute to replenish its seed supplies. By the end of the 1930s, he had more than 20,000 scientists and technicians working for him on this massive effort.

The story continues in our next post. Meantime, please find below a list of references for more reading.

References

  1. Nikolai Vavilov
  2. The Tragedy of the World’s First SeedBank
  3. Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov (1887-1943)
  4. The tragic tale of Nikolai Vavilov
  5. The Seeds of Life — Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and the Fight for the Centers of Origins of Plant Diversity and Food Security
  6. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry
  7. Institute of Plant Industry
  8. Federal Research Center, N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR), Ministry of science and higher education
  9. The Development of Botany in the Soviet Union by Slavomil Hejný
  10. Russian famine of 1921–1922
  11. The Law of Homologous Series in Variation by Professor N. I. Vavilov, Director of the Bureau of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, Petrograd, Russia.
  12. Homologous Series, Law of
  13. Revisiting N.I. Vavilov’s “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation” (1922)
  14. Vavilov : Une banque de semences à Lyon pour préserver la biodiversité
  15. Beyond the Gardens: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
  16. Impact: science et société, UNESCO Bibliothèque Numérique, pages 141 à 149
  17. Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  18. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  19. Seed banks: saving for the future
  20. Russia’s Vavilov institute, guardian of world’s lost plants
  21. CRBA L’institut Vavilov
  22. Russie : Campagne pour sauver la station expérimentale de Pavlovsk
  23. Une collection de 5000 variétés de petits fruits menacée de disparition en Russie à l’Institut Vavilov !
  24. Une oasis de la biodiversité menacée par les pelles mécaniques
  25. Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaign
  26. Les végétaux du futur poussent à Charly
  27. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station