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Nikolai I. Vavilov

Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry

The N.I. Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia, is the world's first seed bank and one of the world's largest collections of plant genetic material. The Institute originated as the Bureau of Applied Botany in 1894. Nikolai I. Vavilov, a Russian biologist, botanist and geneticist, was nominated for the directorship of the Bureau by its founder, Robert E. Regel, in 1917. The Bureau was reorganized in 1924 into the All-Union Research Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops. In 1930 it became the Research Institute of Plant Industry. In 1968 the Institute was renamed after Vavilov in time for its 75 anniversary.

The Institute's seed collections were largely built by Vavilov who scoured five continents in the 1920s and 1930s for wild and cultivated corn, potato tubers, grains, beans, fodder, fruits and vegetable seeds. By the 1930s, the Institute was a central national institution involved not only in collecting and maintaining genetic material but also in the scientific evaluation of this material. The Institute became the world's largest crop research institute under Vavilov's leadership.

Vavilov was the foremost plant geographer of his time and took part in over 100 collecting missions to 64 countries, besides his tireless work within Russia, at the Institute and other scientific organizations. Vavilov even organized an office in New York City during the 1920s. Russian immigrants in the United States collected seeds and sent them to the office, and the seeds were then shipped back to Russia.

Today the collection numbers 380,000 gene types representing 2,500 plant species. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Vavilov Institute network consisted of 19 experimental stations, six of them located outside Russia. The stations outside Russia held 25 percent of the entire collection.

Under Stalin, the Institute suffered repression since genetics was seen as a science that supports "inborn class differences." One of Stalin's victims was Vavilov himself. After being denounced by a former student, Stalin's protege Trofim Lysenko, Vavilov was arrested in August 1940 as he set out on a plant-collecting expedition in the Carpathian Mountains.

One year later, Hitler's army blockaded Leningrad. Under German fire, scientists gathered unripened potato tubers from the institute's experimental fields outside Leningrad. They burned everything they could find to keep the collection from freezing in the unheated, dark building. While guarding the collection, some scientists starved to death rather than eat the packets of rice, corn and other seeds in their desks.

The brochure of the VIR describes the situation:

Vavilov, the symbol of glory of the national science, is at the same time the symbol of its tragedy. As early as in the beginning of the 1930s, his scientific programs were being deprived of governmental support. In the stifling atmosphere of a totalitarian state, the Institute headed by Vavilov turned into a resistance point to the pseudo-scientific concepts of Trofim D. Lysenko. As a result of this controversy, Vavilov was arrested in August 1940 and his closest associates were also imprisoned. Vavilov's life ceased in the city where his star had risen. He died in the Saratov prison of dystrophia on the 26th of January 1943 and was buried in a common prison grave.

Vavilov's Centers of Origin

Excerpts from Shattering by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney

"In two decades that Vavilov was scouring the countryside, his team added a quarter of a million entries to Soviet seed collections. No country since has come close to duplicating this feat. He combed the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia for primitive wheat varieties. He journeyed to North and South America and to the Far East. But more importantly than travelling and collecting widely, he began to notice a pattern.

"Genetic variation--the diversity created by thousands of years of agriculture--was not equally distributed around the globe. In a small, isolated pocket on the Ethiopian plateau, Vavilov found hundreds of endemic varieties of ancient wheat. Studying other crops, he found some regions blessed with astonishing diversity, while other areas were relatively impoverished. In the following years, observations by other scientists confirmed Vavilov's budding theory. While living in a suburb of Guadalajara, Mexico, Edgar Anderson noted that he found 'more variation in the corn of this one little township than in all of the maize in the United States.'

"Vavilov mapped out the distribution of this diversity for each of the crops he studied. He reasoned that the degree of diversity was indicative of how long the crop had been grown in that area. The longer the crop had been grown, the more diversity it would display. . . . By locating a center of genetic diversity for a crop, one pinpointed its origin, Vavilov reasoned. This was where the crop had originated and had had time and opportunity to develop wide diversity. A plant's 'center of diversity' was thus its 'center of origin,' he said.

"With this insight, Vavilov was able to look back through the darkness of ancient history. Conventional wisdom had assumed that agricultrure had arisen along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Vavilov was discovering otherwise. Diversity was concentrated 'in the strip between 20 degrees and 45 degrees north latitude, near the higher mountain ranges, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, those of the Near East, the Balkans, and the Appennines. In the Old World this strip follows the latitudes, while in the New World it runs longitudinally, in both cases conforming to the general direction of the great mountain ranges.' The mountains provided ideal conditions for the rise of diversity: varied topography, soil types, and climates. And they were excellent barriers to outside incursions and even local exchange, thereby sheltering their diversity."

"As Vavilov discovered what he thought to be the centers of origin for more and more crops, he noticed that they overlapped. The center for wheat is not the center of origin for wheat alone, for here a great diversity of barley, rye, lentils, figs, peas, flax, and other crops is also found. These crops share a common center of origin.

"Thus, Vavilov theorized that the world's crops had originated in eight definable centers of origin. It was in these centers--all located in Third World countries--that agriculture had originated, he suggested, and that the greatest genetic diversity was to be found. The eight centers were listed as follows: China; India, with a related center in Indo-Malaya; Central Asia; the Near East; the Mediterraneon; Abyssinia (Ethopia); southern Mexico and Central America; and South America (Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia), with two lesser centers--the island of Chiloe off the coast of southern Chile, and an eastern secondary center in Brazil and Paraguay. "

"The beauty, simplicity, and utility of Vavilov's theory of centers remain despite the enlargements and modifications that have been made by Harlan and others, If it does not always make sense to speak of centers of origin as Vavilov did, it is still essential to understand that crops have centers of diversity. (And for the crop evolutionist, this diversity remains a crucial clue in delving into the crop's origin.)

"It is crucial to understand that plant diversity is not spread evenly around the globe."

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