Friday, August 13, 2010

Bad day for research and biodiversity

Russia may plow under its plant bank - "which includes more than 70 hectares planted with 5,500 different varieties of apples, pears, cherries, and numerous berry species - most of which occur nowhere else on Earth and were developed over hundreds of year" - to build housing. It is also a national treasure: "Russian scientists famously starved to death rather than surrender their seeds during the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II." The institution has appealed the case to Putin and Medvedev, the only two people with authority to overturn the ruling.
The genetic wealth harbored in thousands of plants growing at Pavlovsk lies in untold numbers of mutations for drought tolerance, unique taste and growth characteristics, and propagation abilities that could help to improve crops on a global scale, according to Emile Frison, director general of the charity Bioversity International, devoted to agricultural biodiversity. Simply banking seeds from the collection's plants is not an option: Most of the unique fruit plant strains do not reproduce asexually, and are pollinated by other strains, so their seeds do not necessarily yield adult plants that mirror the characteristics of the parent plant. For this reason, the only way to preserve the vast genetic diversity contained in the Pavlovsk is to keep the plants growing in the ground or to move them to a new site -- a dicey and time-consuming proposition, as the perfect site would have to be found and planted only after years of grafting and then monitoring for suitable transplants.
While it would take years to move the plants, they could be bulldozed in 3-4 months. A notice was passed around the department with a letter you can send to Pres. Medvedev, asking him to intervene (below the fold).
You can send an electronic letter to the Russian President using this link:

Here is the text of the Crop Diversity Trust letter:

Dear President Medvedev,

I am writing to ask you to embrace Russia's heroic tradition as protector of the world’s crop diversity and halt the planned destruction of an incredibly valuable crop collection near St. Petersburg.

Russian scientists famously starved to death rather than surrender their seeds during the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II.

The Pavlovsk Station matters because humanity needs crops to survive. As the climate changes and new threats to existing crop varieties appear, the ones we have now need to adapt, and the diversity found at the Pavlovsk Station provides this adaptation potential for a broad range of fruits and berries.

• The plant germplasm maintained at the Pavlovsk Experiment Station of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry is a “gold mine” on a global scale, because it contains the genetic resources needed for the development of modern cultivars, i.e. for modern agriculture. In the case of the Pavlosk’s strawberry collection alone, genetic diversity from 40 countries and all continents is stored there.

• For all practical purposes, the collection cannot be moved elsewhere. It would cost some millions of dollars perhaps, and take over 10 years to ensure the safe duplication of all the accessions, and there is no guarantee of 100% success.

• An intrinsic part of the value of the collection is the expertise of the scientists who have studied it and maintained it. Continuous in-depth studies have provided vital information on detailed characteristics of major economic and biological traits, and allowed the collection to be used successfully in breeding many commercially successful crop varieties. The loss of the botanical wealth at the Pavlovsk Station would also result in the loss of the human knowledge associated with this important collection.

• The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry remains a source of inspiration worldwide, particularly as a demonstration of the importance to humanity of the genetic diversity of our crops. It was the scene of great heroism during the Siege of Leningrad, when scientists chose to die in the Institute, surrounded by samples of seed that they could easily have eaten, but they preferred to ensure these
collections would be available to future generations.

Thank you for your consideration.


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