Not so common spuds

September 15, 2000

A collection of 2,500 types of potato, many unique, faces ruin. Richard Rawles reports.

In the 1930s, the Soviet plant geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and his co-workers gathered a remarkable collection of potatoes from around the world. Some 60 years on, two scientists, Kandukuri Raman and Patrick Russo of Cornell University, are mounting an international effort to save the descendants derived from some 70 wild species.

Their concern focuses on about 2,500 types of potato, some of which are not duplicated in any other collection. These tubers could be a source of genes to provide resistance against new, aggressive strains of blight pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, that are spreading across Russia and parts of Eastern Europe and are threatening to devastate potato crops all over the world. But the remarkable collection may soon be lost. The Americans claim that unless financial support is found to provide heating systems, greenhouse soil fumigation procedures and save the run-down institutes of plant breeding named after Vavilov in Pushkin and St Petersburg, this unique resource might perish.

Vavilov was born in Moscow in 1887 and raised in comfortable conditions that cultivated his intellectual and scientific interests. At the Petrovskaia Academy he studied the physiology of plants and the problem of immunity to various diseases. Effective plant breeding developed into a lifelong obsession and, as there was virtually no place to study genetics in Russia, he set off in 1913 to pursue the subject under William Bateson in Cambridge.

The visit foreshadowed a series of expeditions in search of disease-resistant plants, which took him to many countries. He never wasted a minute, slept only four or five hours a night, and posted back to Russia boxes of seeds from all over the world.

In 1919, he demonstrated that natural immunity in plants was the product of continuous evolution, which takes place concurrently with that of their enemies - parasites and disease carriers. Thus, varieties of plant resistant to diseases should be sought in the ancient habitats, hence those journeys to find the ancient homes of plants and specifically the potato.

By 1929, Vavilov was president of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, set up in response to famine, where genetics became the key discipline in the development of Soviet agriculture. A year later, he was also directing the All-Union Institute of Plant Breeding, where seeds and plants gathered during worldwide expeditions were used to breed varieties for increasing yields. In November 1932, Vavilov waxed lyrical:

"I am positive that if the dialectics of the potato had been appreciated in earnest in Peru and Bolivia, then we shall be able to change the potato the way we like." Parcels of tubers were duly posted to Leningrad, each at the cost of seven to eight roubles in gold.

Vavilov's approach was not without opposition. Trofim Lysenko, who denounced the chromosome theory of heredity as reactionary, idealist, metaphysical and barren, went on in 1937 to oust Vavilov from the presidency of the Agricultural Academy. Lysenko promised rapid results through "vernalisation", whereby winter crops are obtained from summer plantings. This grandiose claim, together with Lysenko's hatred of "bourgeois" science, was to the liking of Stalin.

During the 872-day ordeal of Leningrad under siege in the second world war, the efforts by V. Lekhnovich and others, starving in order to protect the tubers from frost and rats, ensured the collection survived.

But Vavilov was arrested by the secret police in August 1940 and was found guilty the following July of being, among other things, a British spy. It is likely that Stalin's personal animus and Vavilov's international connections, especially those with an Oxford geneticist, led to his arrest. After several months of incarceration, his death sentence was commuted to ten years' imprisonment. Ironically, having done so much to improve food production, he died from malnutrition on July 26 1943.

In 1939, Vavilov told co-workers: "We will burn but we will not give up our principles." It would be a tragedy if Vavilov's plant and potato collection, which survived Stalinism and war, should go to the flames under a Russian capitalism that neglects its rich scientific heritage.

Richard E. Rawles is head of the Russian psychology research unit, University College London.

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