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Tribute: Nikolai Vavilov, persecuted Soviet geneticist who foresaw our present crisis


From McSweeney’s: Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov collected more seeds from around the world than any other person in history. Yet the plant explorer, who endeavoured to end famine, starved to death in one of Stalin’s gulags. A tribute to a scientific pioneer who foresaw the need for preserving the world’s seed heritage almost a century ago.

The sad tale of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and his beautiful theory

Emily Helliwell, McSweeney’s

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943) was a Soviet botanist, agronomist, and geneticist. Considered to be the Charles Darwin of the plant world, Vavilov grew up in an era of chronic food shortages and famine as a result of mismanagement and neglect of collectivized farms, and dedicated his life to the study of food security through improvement of crop plants. Unlike Darwin, who focused on the study of biodiversity for its implications into evolution, Vavilov sought to find out how the genetic diversity of plants could be used to aid in improving plants cultivated for agriculture.

Vavilov graduated from the Moscow Agricultural Institute in 1910, and spent his early career in Europe, studying alongside scientists who were embarking on the burgeoning field of genetics. At this point, genetics research was heavily focused on fruit flies due to their short generational time, and the clear distinction of inherited traits. Vavilov wanted to turn attention towards plants, namely those that were widely used in agriculture. After being appointed director of the prestigious Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1929, Vavilov and his team embarked on a series of global travels over the next decade, where they collected seeds, tubers, and roots of cultivated and wild plants. With these samples, he established the first global seedbank in Moscow to organize and catalog all the collected samples.

Through the study of these wild species, he developed his theory of Centers of Origin, otherwise known as centers of diversity. This theory states that there is a single geographical area where each crop first originated, and it is at these specific areas where we can find a rich diversity of wild relatives, termed “landraces.” His work identified seven such geographical locations as centers of origin for multiple crops 12:

The way Vavilov saw it, landraces were evolved to withstand and perhaps even thrive in their surrounding environment. These adaptive traits had a genetic basis, and most importantly, landraces could be bred with related food crops. For example, a common food staple could be crossed with a wild relative collected from an arid environment, potentially yielding a crop that could tolerate drier climates. This was perfect for expanding the geographical range that a crop could be grown in the cooler, drier climates of the Russian steppes. With this theory and collected seeds in hand, he and his team embarked on several crop breeding projects with the goal of creating more adaptable, hardy, and secure crops.

At about the same time, an agricultural scientist by the name of Trofim Lysenko had an idea to increase wheat yields by subjecting the seeds to cold, humid conditions for several weeks prior to planting. This method was successful, resulting in earlier flowering of the plants and a boost in yield come harvest. Lysenko’s “discovery” (which was in fact known as vernalization and had already been used in agriculture for perhaps the past two centuries2) gained him the attention and favor of Josef Stalin, who appointed him as the Director of the Institute of Genetics within the Russian Academy of Sciences.

To Stalin, who sought to fill leadership roles with folks from proletariat backgrounds, Lysenko perfectly fit the narrative of a man coming from a peasant background, who found a fast solution to a problem through his innate cleverness and not on account of any fancy science training. This separated Lysenko from Vavilov, who came from a middle-class background, and was well-educated and well-connected throughout Europe at this point.

Lysenko had a different view of biological sciences; despite being the head of the Institute of Genetics, he rejected genetic inheritance, Mendelian theories, and natural selection, instead embracing the theory of inheritance through acquired characteristics. Also known as Lamarkian theory, this hypothesized that traits were not inherited through genetic means, but instead through physical alterations passed from parent to offspring, based on environment only.

For example, giraffes got their elongated necks through repeated reaching to high tree branches, and wheat only needed to go through vernalization periods once as the next season’s seeds will have learned to flower early from their parents. Even more strangely, plants could “learn” to grow in harsh climates, and if wheat tried really, really hard, it could probably grow as rye if needed or vice versa. He denounced traditional genetics altogether, claiming the field was a bourgeois pseudoscience not compatible with Marxism, and that geneticists were “fly lovers and people haters.”4

Vavilov initially praised Lysenko due to his work with rapid improvement of crops through vernalization practices, but began to speak out against him by latter part of the 1930s as the situation was starting to get weird. This put government scrutiny on Vavilov, who at this point was deeply involved in his program of collection and characterization of wild landraces, and breeding into cultivated crops.

The process of conventional plant breeding is measured by the decade, as it takes many years, lots of manpower, and tons of bookkeeping to cross parent plants, increase multiple generations, and characterize the many, many offspring. It was getting more difficult to justify the often expensive travel to collect wild seeds, and the amount of time it took to yield a successful new cultivar from the breeding program was out of touch with Stalin’s demand for fast improvements.

Out of favor with Stalin and the Russian Academy of Sciences, which was then fully under Lysenko’s control, Vavilov was stripped of his passport and exit visa in 1940, leaving him unable to travel outside of the USSR. It was shortly thereafter that he was arrested and charged with sabotaging Soviet agriculture (which had been in decline under Lysenko’s direction), taking part in right-wing conspiracies, and spying for Europe. Vavilov denied all charges, but it didn’t look great that he held prestigious positions in international science committees, had many friends in Europe, and spoke several languages. He received a death sentence in 1941, which was later commuted to 20 years in prison due to attention from the international science community.

Twenty years is a long time to spend in a Soviet gulag, and Vavilov starved to death in 1943, less than two years later.

Vavilov was not alone in his persecution; in fact thousands of Soviet scientists who were classified as studying bourgeois fields were purged, including other geneticists, statisticians, early computer scientists, sociologists, and linguists. The study of genetics was completely banned in the Soviet Union in 1948; any deviation from Lamarkian theory (now known as Lysenkoism) was grounds for arrest, if not execution.

It wasn’t until after Stalin’s death that the Soviet government re-opened the Vavilov case, ultimately overturning his conviction and re-installing his reputation by the 1960s along with re-acceptance of scientific theory based on genetics. No longer under Stalin’s protection, Lysenko denied ever speaking out against Vavilov, only complaining that he may have been bullied early in his career on account of being from a working class background.5 Inquiry into Lysenko’s research showed sloppy, non-controlled experiments, severe omissions, and results so bizarre and hasty that they must have been falsified. Disgraced, Lysenko was removed from his post at the Russian Academy of Sciences in the early 1960’s, and died in relative obscurity in 1976.

Today, Vavilov’s theories about the origins and diversity of plants is a mainstay in the field of plant breeding, and one of the foremost reasons why maintenance of biodiversity is so important to our survival as a species. These centers of diversity were not only places that served the evolution and diversification of crop plants, but also served the co-evolution of pollinators as well as pathogens within a similar timeframe. We are still discovering unique traits of landraces that enable them to withstand adverse environmental conditions and/or disease, and these traits can be transferred into crops meant for human consumption.

If a frightening new pathogen strain appears, our best bet is to look into seeds that might carry genetic resistance as breeding stock. Along the same lines, there is overwhelming evidence that the changing climate may result in more extreme weather patterns. We need to keep studying crops that can withstand adverse environmental conditions if we are going to maintain agricultural productivity into the next century and beyond.

Vavilov’s establishment of a seedbank at what is now the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry to store exotic and cultivated specimens was also a first; there are now about 1,600 seedbanks worldwide, holding about 6 million samples altogether with the numbers increasing everyday.6 Counting among these is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, which is designed to withstand any natural or manmade disaster, from earthquakes to tsunamis to nuclear war. The Millennium Seed Bank located near London is also built to withstand a nuclear attack, and has room for over a billion accessions if it is possible to ever reach that number.6

– – –

1 Vavilov, NI. 1940. The theory of origins of cultivated plants after Darwin.

2 Hummer, KE. And Hancock, JF. 2015. Vavilovian centers of plant diversity. Hort Science 50:780-783

3 Chouard, P. 1960. Vernalization and its relations to dormancy. Annual Review of Plant Physiology 11:191-238

4 Agazzi, E., Echeverria, J., Rodriguez, A. 2008. Epistemology and the Social.In Pozna Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities.

5 Joravsky, D. 1970. The Lysenko Affair. University of Chicago Press

6 Rajasekharan, PE. 2015. Gene banking for Ex Situ conservation of plant genetic resources. In Plant Biology and Biotechnology. Pp 445-459

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