World's biggest collection of berries and fruits faces axe

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The world's largest collection of fruits and berries may be bulldozed this year to make way for a Russian housing development, it emerged yesterday.

The Pavlovsk experimental station outside St Petersburg holds more than 4,000 varieties of fruits and berries, including more than 100 examples each of gooseberries, raspberries, and cherries, and almost 1,000 types of strawberries from 40 countries, from which most modern commercially-grown varieties are derived.

According to New Scientist magazine, the collection is likely to be handed over to the Russian Housing Development Foundation, a state body set up in 2008 to identify public land that could be sold to build private homes. The last chance to save it could come in a court hearing on Monday.

The station is part of the Nikolai Vavilov research institute, named after one of Russia's greatest 20th-century scientists, who died in Stalin's labour camps in 1943. Vavilov was the man who conceived the idea of the seed bank – a repository of seeds of every different sort of plant, to be held for future generations. He personally collected the seeds of more than 200,000 plants. The seed bank idea has now come of age, and yesterday appeals to save the collection came from the two other leading seed banks, the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust.

"This is such a valuable collection that we can't afford to lose it," said Simon Linington, deputy head of the Millennium Seed Bank, which is based at Wakehurst Place in Sussex. "It is important that it is saved in one way or another, even if that means moving it."

Cary Fowler, the Global Crop Diversity Trust's director, called for scientists to intervene to prevent "the largest intentional, preventable loss of crop diversity in my lifetime – taking place during the International Year of Biodiversity." According to Fyodor Mikhovich, the Pavlovsk station's director, "more than 90 per cent of the collection is found in no other research station". He said it was unlikely that the courts would block the handover of the site, so attention may soon focus on relocating the collection.

A spokesman for the Housing Development Foundation told New Scientist that the station land was "not utilised" and that its inspection showed that claims about there being "priceless collections on these pieces of land [are] false".

Dr Fowler, who is in charge of assembling seeds from most of the world's crops at a "doomsday vault" on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen, said that most of the seeds in the Pavlovsk collection would not survive freezing, and only planting could protect their genes for posterity. "We will try to help them rescue the station," he said. "We have contacted a number of institutions to alert them that we may need to swing into action at short notice if the court rulings go against Pavlovsk. But no rescue effort will salvage much. There will be little time, there is no place to put the collection and quarantine regulations will prevent us sending it abroad quickly."

Norman Looney, president of the International Society for Horticultural Science, based in Leuven, Belgium, agreed the collection was unique. He said that with world food production likely to move north as a result of climate change, "these genetic resources will become even more important".

Jim Hancock of Michigan State University, one of the world's leading strawberry breeders, said the collection housed many Russian varieties that were exceptionally hardy and disease-resistant. "It would be a major tragedy if the collection were lost," he said.

Botanist who died for his beliefs

*Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was a Russian botanist and one of the first scientists to try to establish the origins of crops such as wheat. While working on his theories he made expeditions to various parts of the world and brought back seeds of other plant varieties which could be used for crop improvement; his collection of seeds in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) became the world's largest.

*The collection survived the German siege of Leningrad during the Second World War, even though one of Vavilov's assistants is said to have starved to death while looking after it – surrounded by edible seeds which he declined to eat.

*By then, however, Vavilov himself had fallen foul of Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who became director of Soviet biology under Stalin and founded his own unconventional theory of genetics.

*Vavilov was arrested in August 1940 and died in prison in 1943. Today, his memory is honoured and the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg maintains one of the largest collections of plant genetic material in the world; the Pavlovsk station's collection is part of this.

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