St. Petersburg’s Vavilovskiy Institute has things to fight for – its reserves have rescued entire countries on numerous occasions. Alexander Odintsov found out why botanic workers need “their own” law and what’s the difference between a strategic reserve and a seeds warehouse.
325 thousand samples from all over the world are in store here. This gene bank is one of the largest. Only the USA, China and India have larger ones. Seeds, berries and grits are treated here almost like museum items. The rarest ones are put in cryogenic tanks with liquid nitrogen. Specimen could be stored to up to a century like this, and it really is necessary.
Vladimir Verzhuk, head of plants cryogenic conservation group: “The specimen which need to be saved from extinction. Urbanization is underway, disasters happen. We store them so that we could work with them in the future”.
After such storage it could be used for growth straight away. This method is only a decade old, before that experimental seeds were grown in agricultural lands. Vavilov started creating a huge botanical map at the end of the 19th century, and the Institute still carries the name of its founder.
Alexander Odintsov, reporter: “Founder of Russia’s gene bank, Nikolay Vavilov, refilled his collection with specimen found in expeditions. In the 1930’s he went to Uruguay and brought back several types of plants. 80 years later, a delegation from South America comes to St. Petersburg with a plea to share the long-lost plants. And St. Petersburg happily helps. The samples are still kept at the Institute”
An entire delegation of German farmers recently came to the Northern Capital to acquire experimental specimen of lentil. Pedantic Europeans seemed to have lost what they used to sow at their Bavarian lands. But they found the specimen here. Those metal cases are sharply numerated – just as in ledgers. Roots are usually frozen, apexes are dried. There are 350 thousand herbarium lists here. The first ones were collected by Vavilov himself. There’s a date here – 1901.
Tamara Smekalova, head of agrobotanics department: “This is a different collection – both by the conservation type and the designation. If we are studying bluegrass, then it has to be from the northern boundaries of its growth to the southern ones, from western to eastern ones”
Not only have the samples had to be preserved today, but the Institute itself. 4 years ago, experimental station in Pavlovsk was due to be demolished in favour of building residential buildings. They won the battle then. After that victory, the Institute’s employees have created a legislative bill to preserve genetic resources of Russia. It is now being considered in the State Duma.
Nikolay Dzubenko, head of Russia’s Institute of crop research: “Bureaucrats say – what collection is this, its just a seeds warehouse. We disagree. We’ve been trying to prove that this strategic resource is the main biologic element of safety. If such law is passed, then the state shall be responsible for it”
World countries are quite serious about such seed funds. A quite telling example – by the time of the Mayan-predicted “apocalypse” in December 2012, the world seed bank in Norway’s Spitzbergen had a record-setting two million seeds of the planet’s main agricultural crops. The Vavilov Institute dreams of such care. For the time being, its life is upheld almost voluntarily.