Russian Seed Bank needs help
When the U.S. soybean crop fell prey to a parasitic worm 10 years ago, Soviet scientists came to the rescue.
Researchers in the United States had searched in vain for domestic beans that could resist the destructive cyst
nematode. Finally, they turned to the Soviets, who supplied beans with the desired resistance.
Such help may not be possible in the future, however.
The N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, keeper of one of the world’s largest collections of plant genetic
material and source of the nematode-resistant soybeans, has fallen on hard times. With Russia’s government in
turmoil over reforming the economy, funding for the St. Petersburg-based institute is drying up, while the cost
of labor is soaring. Operating on a shoestring, the institute may soon be unable to sustain its priceless collection
of 380,000 varieties of seeds, warn researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“We can’t let a resource like this just drift off,” says Henry L. Shands, a scientist at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) center in Beltsville, Md. Encouraged by Shands and his colleagues, public and private donors from various countries are now rallying support to ensure the continuity of the largely unique seed stock.
Maintaining the collection is crucial not only because it helps preserve the global diversity of plant species,
says Shands, but also because it represents a huge reservoir of genetic traits that breeders can tap to produce
hardier crop strains with higher yields.
In the United States today, a mere 2 percent of the population grows enough food to meet the nation’s consumption
and export needs. The USDA attributes more than 60 percent of this productivity to breeding. To achieve higher yields,
breeders need access to the thousands of slightly different traits that plants have developed in response to particular
climate, soil, parasite, and other environmental conditions.
Yet access to this wealth of plant traits depends on curators such as those at the Vavilov institute.
These scientists gather crop plants and their wild relatives and keep the plants’ hereditary material, the germ plasm,
viable for future needs.
“Many wild species that have evolved over thousands of years were shoved aside for improved types that contain very
narrow germ plasm,” says James H. Elgin Jr., a geneticist at the ARS in Beltsville. The Vavilov institute, the only
seed repository in the former Soviet Union, has compiled and studied genetic resources since 1894 –longer than any
existing seed bank in the world.
The vast ecological expanse covered by the institute stretches from the Arctic circle to subtropical Central Asia.
It contains plant traits that fit “needs for all degrees of latitude in the U.S.,” explains Shands. “The fact that
they have all this material makes a nice match for our breeders. We need each other as sources for new varieties.
That’s what their and our [germ plasm collections] are all about.”
Some of the institute’s riches have vanished already. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Vavilov network
consisted of 19 experimental stations, six of them located outside Russia. One of these, the Sukhumi station in
Georgia’s contested western province of Abkhazia, was destroyed in this year’s civil war.
Alexey Fogel, an 83-year-old botanist and 50-year veteran of the Sukhumi station, rescued seeds as he fled Abkhazia
through mountain paths in the Caucasus range, says Sergey Alexanian, a spokesman for the Vavilov institute. Fogel,
his son Vladimir, also a scientist at the Sukhumi station, and two other botanists succeeded in evacuating 226 precious
samples of subtropical fruit plants and almost the entire lemon collection to the Russian town of Sochi.
There the samples will be kept permanently, hopes Alexanian, provided the Russian government absorbs the cost. The
institute does not plan to move them to the St. Petersburg collection because the city’s climate is not conducive to
growing and studying subtropical plants. The 2,000 samples left behind in the Sukhumi station are probably spoiled,
The other outposts severed from the Vavilov network – those in the now-independent countries of Uzbekistan,
the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – hold 25 percent of the entire Vavilov collection. Yet they do not
receive funds from Russia or their respective governments, Alexanian adds. Given their precarious situation, “we try
to negotiate the transfer of unique germ plasm stored there and duplicate it in Russia,” he says.
The current cash crunch is not the first crisis to threaten the institute. During the two-year siege of St. Petersburg
in World War II, scientists guarded the seeds from famished townspeople. At least nine botanists starved to death in
the midst of rice, wheat, corn, and peas.
Under Stalin, the institute suffered repression from the Communist regime, which misinterpreted and dismissed
genetics as a science that supports “inborn class differences” among people.