Russian Botanist Nikolai Vavilov

This brief biography of Botanist Nikolai Vavilov is taken from an article by Charles Siebert (NG, Jul 2011):

Stamp Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Nikolai Vavilov

One response to the rapidly dwindling biodiversity in our [farm] fields has been to gather and safely store the seeds of as many different crop varieties as we can before they disappear forever.  It’s an idea first conceived by Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov, who in 1926 had perhaps the least heralded scientific epiphany of the modern era.  The son of a Moscow merchant who’d grown up in a poor rural village plagued by recurring crop failures and food rationing, Vavilov was obsessed from an early age with ending famine in both his native Russia and the world.

In the 1920s and ’30s he devoted himself to gathering seeds on five continents from the wild relatives and unknown varieties of crops we eat, in order to preserve genes that confer such essential characteristics as disease and pest resistance and the ability to withstand extreme climate conditions.  He also headed an institute (now called the Research Institute of the Plant Industry, in St. Petersburg) tasked with preserving his burgeoning collection–what amounted to the first global seed bank.

It was on one expedition to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1926 that Vavilov had a vision in which he attained a vantage point high enough above the planet to see the handful of locations across the Earth where the wild relatives of our food crops had first been domesticated.  Afterward he mapped out seven “centers of origin of cultivated plants,” which he described as the ancient birthing grounds of agriculture.  “It is possible to witness there,” Vavilov wrote, “the great role played by man in the selection of the cultivated forms best suited to each area.”

Vavilov’s life story did not end happily.  In 1943 one of the world’s foremost authorities on the potential cures for famine died of starvation in a prison camp on the Volga River, a victim of Stalin, who had deemed Vavilov’s seed-gathering efforts bourgeois science.  By this time, Hitler’s army had already closed in on St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)–a desparate city that had lost more than 700,000 people to hunger and disease.  The Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage, convinced that Hitler had his sights set on the museum.  The had done nothing, however, to safeguard the 400,000 seeds, roots, and fruits stored in the world’s largest seed bank.  So a group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute boxed up a cross section of seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them.  Historical documents later revealed that Hitler had, in fact, established a commando unit to seize the seed bank, perhaps hoping to one day control the world’s food supply.

Although suffering from hunger, the seed’s caretakers refused to eat what they saw as the country’s future.  Indeed, by the end of the seige in the spring of 1944, nine of the institute’s self-appointed gardians had died of starvation.

Vavilov’s ideas have been modified in the years since.  Today’s scientists consider the regions he mapped to be centers of diversity rather than of origin, because it is not clear whether the earliest domestication occurred there first.  Yet Vavilov’s vision of these regions as the repositories of the genetic diversity upon which the future of our food depends is proving more prescient than ever.

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