Threatened Russian 'Plant Bank' Gets Reprieve

Last month, news that 70+ hectares of genetically unique, cultivated plants outside St. Petersburg, Russia, would be auctioned off to land developers created an uproar amongst agricultural researchers and preservationists world-wide. The experimental agricultural project is maintained by Russia’s renowned N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (VIR).

The living  “seed bank” of cultivated plants is the central resource of the Pavlosk Experimental Station — one of 13 such VIR-affiliated stations scattered throughout Russia. The station is home to over 6,000 varieties of fruits and berries (many found no where else on Earth), amongst many other commercially valuable species. The outrage from around the globe has prompted Russian president Medvedev to order a review of the court’s decision to auction the land to single-family, home developers.

The decision by a Russian court to turn over 70 hectares of genetically unique species of plants to home developers caused an uproar world-wide, with scientists decrying the pending loss as “irreplaceable” and a major blow to agricultural biodiversity. Recently, however, the Russian government has stepped in and ordered a review of the decision–postponing the auctioning of land until at least October.

The Pavlosk Experimental Station was organized in 1926 by Russia’s renowned agricultural scientist N.I. Vavilov and is commonly referred to as a “seed bank”. However, unlike many other seed banks that literally house/preserve seeds, the species preserved at the station cannot reproduce asexually; they must be grown in the ground and cross-pollinated with other strains to propagate and preserve their favored characteristics.

Cereal crops at Pavlosk Exp. Station

The inestimable “genetic wealth” of the species cultivated at Pavlosk lies in their various mutations that confer drought tolerance, growth and propagation abilities, as well as their unique tastes. This agricultural wealth could be used to improve other crops grown around the globe.

If the auction  goes through as feared, development could start as early as December. The Housing Development Foundation will pay the equivalent of USD 3 million for leasing of the land for a five year period. However, agricultural scientists estimate that it would take some seven years or more to relocate and replant all the plant varieties found at the station. So, it is not clear how this relocation would be managed, given the competing interests of developers and agriculturalists.

About VIR:

“The scientific network of VIR includes the institute’s headquarters with 9 plant resources departments, 13 fundamental research laboratories, and 12 experiment stations in different geographic zones of Russia. Its chief activities are Plant Genetics Resources (PGR) collections, conservation and study.”

This recent news item was originally reported on Science Magazine’s Science Insider news feed. Earlier reportage on this story came from The Scientist blog.

Top Photo: Alaska wild “berries” from the Innoko National Wildlife RefugeU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee (public domain).
Bottom Photo: VIR, Pavlosk Exp. Station

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