Nordic Genetic Resource Center and N.I. Vavilov Research Institute

An overview and a summary of common projects. N.I. Vavilov Research Institute for Plant industry (VIR).

One of the world’s largest gene banks: N.I. Vavilov Research Institute for plant industry (VIR) is situated in St. Petersburg. Here are more than 300,000 seed samples preserved. The institution is named after the famous geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who from 1920 onwards travelled around the world to collect seeds of cultivated plants and their wild relatives. During the period 1923 to 1940 Vavilov and his colleges conducted a total of 180 collecting expeditions around the world. The most important missions went to Afghanistan (1924), the Mediterranean countries and Ethiopia (1927) and America (in the 1930s). Between 1920 and 1940, the collection increased from 14 000 to 240 000 seed samples, today it includes 320,000 samples. VIR has 12 experimental stations, for example the “Polar Experiment Station” located in Siberia and research stations in the Caucasian region where regeneration and evaluation of the material takes place.

Vavilov had early contact with breeders and researchers in the Nordic countries, especially with the Botanical Garden in Copenhagen as well as with plant breeders in Svalöv, Sweden. They exchanged seeds and knowledge, and many of the seed samples are still to be found in the gene bank in Russia.

Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen)

The gene bank cooperation in the Nordic region started in 1979 with the establishment of Nordic Gene Bank (NGB), now Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen). The Nordic countries were late in this context, nevertheless, there were seed collections, but these were at universities or at plant breeding stations. Parts of these collections are now at the NordGen. Today the Nordic collection includes approximately 32,000 accessions. NordGen’s main objective is to secure the seeds of Nordic origin or of Nordic relevance. This includes plant cultivars of food crops developed in the Nordic countries or cultivars developed on farms or in rural communities through years of selection.

Cooperation between gene banks

Genebank management

In the late 1990s and onwards VIR has invested in new drying, packing and storage facilities. The Nordic Gene Bank and VIR had extensive contact during this process, and Swedish companies were involved. NGB gained from contacts with the plant experts at VIR.  Networking has been an important issue during the last decades, but we have also started common projects.

Comparing potential duplicates

An important project has been to compare accessions with the same or with similar names in the two collections. In order to study similarities and differences material has been sown side by side in field experiments. A set of morphological descriptors have been used. So far work has been carried out in cereals, where 200 pair of accessions of barley and 80 pairs of oats was the starting point. The work has continued also on spring wheat, winter wheat, rye and a few pairs of turnip accessions. Rye accessions are now also analyzed by molecular markers. Working with the material has gained new knowledge, both NordGen and VIR. The preliminary results show that there are some differences between the pars of accessions, but we are in a process of compiling the data. One interesting observation is that the VIR accessions of winter wheat survived the winter climate in St Petersburg better than the NordGen accessions with the same name. If this is a result of adaptation over time or could be explained in other ways need further studies. Another interesting question is to study the genetic and phenotypic variation between pairs of accessions of self-pollinated versus cross pollinated species. The work is on-going, but lack of funding for research has made the process slow.

Identifying gaps in the Nordic collections

Another part of the work has been to identify collection gaps. The mandate for NordGen is Nordic bred cultivars or landraces. If such material which is lacking in the NordGen collection could be obtained from VIR this would be an advantage. Relevant seed samples in the VIR collection have been identified, including landraces and cultivars of grain, vegetables, oil crops, fiber crops and fodder crops collected from the 1920th an onwards.  So far focus has been on barley, oats, rye, rapeseed, timothy and selected vegetables. Unique material is multiplied and stored also at NordGen. The original accessions will be found in the gene bank in Russia. From 2009-2012 NordGen has repatriated the following number of accessions with Nordic origin; peas (17), beans (12), cauliflower (3), cabbage (10), turnips (19), swedes (6), carrot (3), soybean (6) rye (100), timothy (71), oil crops (68), black mustard (2), and oats (12).

Information share

The collaboration has been on the agenda for various meetings and networks. An information folder describing the collaboration is made. Common scientific publications are in progress.

Future challenges

The Vavilov Institute and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center will continue to work together. We face the same challenges related to climate change and to a northern location. Neither Russia, nor the Nordic countries, can rely exclusively on varieties from countries further south; the varieties must be adapted to our day length and to our climate. As changes in climate towards milder and more humid weather conditions are likely to increase plant diseases, varieties need to be resistant.  Future areas of collaboration have been identified.  Collaboration for food security and green growth is important, facing tasks like climate change and growth in population. Project ideas were developed to enhance the conservations and utilization of plant genetic resources. The project proposals cover the following categories:

–   Food security and sustainable agriculture

–   Information technology

–   Rare and underutilized crops

–   Diversity for organic agriculture

–   Integrating in ex situ and in situ/on farm conservation.