On November 25, 1887, Russian and Soviet botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was born. Vavilov is best known for having identified the centres of origin of cultivated plants. He devoted his life to the study and improvement of wheat, corn, and other cereal crops that sustain the global population. He established 400 research institutes and made expeditions throughout the world (1916-33), leading Russian plant hunters on the first attempt to “cover the globe” in search of wild plants and primitive cultivators.
Nikolai Vavilov attended the Moscow Agricultural Institute and graduated in 1910 with a thesis on snails and pests. He then worked at the Bureau for Applied Botany and at the Bureau of Mycology and Phytopathology. During 1913 and 1914 he traveled in Europe and studied plant immunity, in collaboration with the British biologist William Bateson, who helped establish the science of genetics. Vavilov became director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad. in 1924. When Vavilov learned of the work by the Canadian phytopathologist Margaret Newton on wheat stem rust, he intended to hire her. Even though she declined, Newton visited the institute in 1933 and trained 50 students.
When Vavilov developed his theory on the centres of origin of cultivated plants, he organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, and collected seeds from every corner of the globe. He managed to create the world’s largest collection of plant seeds in Leningrad. A Vavilov Center of Diversity defines as an original center for the domestication of plants. Vavilov stated that plants were not domesticated somewhere in the world at random but there are regions where the domestication started. The center of origin is also considered the center of diversity.
Vavilov further formulated the law of homologous series in variation. He was a member of the USSR Central Executive Committee, President of All-Union Geographical Society and a recipient of the Lenin Prize. Vavilov became acquainted with Trofim Lysenko and supported his work. However, he was later under pressure from the Soviet State that Vavilov began to criticize the non-Mendelian concepts of Trofim Lysenko, who won the support of Joseph Stalin. He was arrested in 1940 while he was on an expedition to Ukraine. One year later he was sentenced to death. In 1942 his sentence was commuted to twenty years’ imprisonment. Vavilov died of starvation in 1943.
Nikolai Vavilov’s seedbank was preservedthoughout the 28-month Siege of Leningrad. The Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage, but had not evacuated the 250,000 samples of seeds, roots, and fruits stored in what was then the world’s largest seedbank. A group of scientists at the institute boxed up a cross section of seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them. Those guarding the seedbank refused to eat its contents, even though by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of them had died of starvation. In 1943, parts of his collection was seized by a German unit. Many of the samples were transferred to the SS Institute for Plant Genetics, which had been established at the Lannach Castle near Graz, Austria.
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