Decision day for Europe’s largest collection of fruit and berries

In the International Year of Biodiversity, a threat to one of the world's major collections of fruit and berry varieties has been widely reported in the media over the last week (see e.g. the BBC, Economist and Guardian). Pavlovsk Experimental Station, located just outside St Petersburg in Russia, is the largest European field genebank for fruits and berries, and is part of the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry. But a court case is due to be held today over a bid to develop the site for housing.

If the court rules in favor of the property developers, and the Russian government does not intervene, Fyodor Mikhovich, the director of the station, predicts bulldozers will be on-site within three to four months, and then, in a few days, destroy almost a century of work and an irreplaceable biological heritage.

The site is home to thousands of varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other crops – and according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, 90 percent of these are not found anywhere else in the world. The hundreds of hectares of fields at Pavlovsk Station contain more than 5,000 varieties, including 1,000 varieties of strawberries alone, and over 100 varieties each of gooseberries, raspberries and cherries. Unlike many of the world's collections of crop varieties which are in the form of frozen seeds, Pavlosk is a field gene bank, where the collection is in the form of living plants – and seeds would not necessarily reproduce the characteristics of the plants. This means that it would be impossible to relocate the collection in a short space of time, should the go-ahead be given for the site to be used for housing.

The Pavlovsk Station was established in 1926 by Nikolai Vavilov, a pioneer of plant breeding and the collection and conservation of plant genetic resources. From 1924 to 1935 he was the director of the All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad, and is perhaps best known for his work on establishing the centres of origin of cultivated plants – parts of the world rich in biodiversity, and to which Vavilov organised collecting missions to tap this biodiversity for use in plant breeding. The Pavlovsk Station is just part of the huge gene bank which stems from the work of Vavilov, with one of the worlds largest seed banks also held at Leningrad in what is now called the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry.

Vavilov graduated from the Moscow Agricultural Institute in 1910 – so with CABI celebrating its' centenary this year, readers with access to the CAB Abstracts Archive are in an ideal position to trace his work, with over 60 papers by N.I. Vavilov found. Papers indexed include 'The problem of the origin of the world's agriculture in the light of the latest investigations', published in 1931, in which Vavilov identifies seven "primary centres of the origin of cultivated plants" and argues that the wealth of the world species is largely concentrated in relatively restricted areas, mostly lying within the mountainous tropics and subtropics. A paper from 1931 in 'Bull. Appl. Bot. Genet. and Plant-Breeding' names a comparatively restricted region of Mexico and Central America as the region of origin of many New World crops, saying that the "immense variety of ecological conditions is thought to be responsible for the variety of types occurring, together with the moist tropical mountain conditions". Other papers from the same time discusses the Caucasus as the region of origin of a number of fruit species, and of Abyssinia as the solution to the "whole problem of the origin of the hard wheats".

Other papers by Vavilov in the CAB Abstracts Archive describe how the genetic resources collected from throughout the former Soviet Union (including regions of the Caucasus where political and security issues may nowadays make such collecting missions difficult) and elsewhere in the world were used to breed crops for all the different climatic and ecological regions of the then vast country. Today, as climate change, soil salinization and other environmental challenges make it as important as ever to introduce new characteristics into existing crops, the type of genetic resources collection which Vavilov pioneered – and which now appear to be under threat – continue to be vital to the world.

Many of Vavilov's papers are available in English translation in 'Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants', recently re-issued in a digitally printed version by Cambridge University Press.

Update – 'The Scientist' reports this afternoon that the Moscow court's decision has gone against tne plant collection and in favour of the developers, although an immediate appeal has been launched.

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