Tidbit Thursday: Seed Saving Scientists of Leningrad

Seed Saving Scientists of Leningrad

Vavilov Research Institute drawing

 Maria Bopkova held a small packet of seeds up to the dim light filtering through the basement window. The cold seeped through her worn clothing and her breath hung in the air. Weak with hunger, she staggered to her desk.

          Maria carefully labeled the packet of rice seeds, then slumped into her chair. She closed her eyes, trying not to think about the horrors that surrounded her. Leningrad, cut off from the rest of Russia by Hitler’s army, had no power and no food. The people of Leningrad were starving to death.

This is a fictionalized scene but Maria Bopkova, the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, and the siege of Leningrad are real.

Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian geneticist and botanist, and his team of scientists, like Maria, collected seeds from over 187,000 plants. The Vavilov Research Institute in Leningrad housed this collection-the largest seed bank in the world, including seeds from important crops like potatoes and corn. Vavilov spent decades, traveling to 67 countries and learning 15 languages, to collect and preserve seeds that the world might need to fight famine in the future.

Vavilov was arrested by Stalin while on a seed gathering expedition in 1941. No one, not even his family, knew what happened to him. To protect the seed bank from the Nazis, Maria Bopkova and the other botanists barricaded themselves in the Institute during the siege.

The siege of Leningrad began in September of 1941 and lasted for nine hundred days.

Nine scientists died from starvation and cold protecting the seed bank. Nikolai Vavilov died from starvation in a Russian gulag.

The seeds collected and preserved by Nikolai Vavilov and his scientists have been used to genetically develop important food crops that help feed the world today.

corn image


I read about Nikolai Vavilov in the book, The Story of Seeds, by Nancy Castaldo while researching ideas for blog posts for this week.  You can find out more information in Gary Paul Nabhan’s book, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nickolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine, 2nd Edition. It is on my list to read for sure.

Today there are many scientists working on seed preservation and diversity.  Who are they? Where are seed banks located today? Have fun researching this interesting and important topic.

Have a great day!

                                                                                       Nature Mamaw




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