Scientists call for rescue of Russian plant collection

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International scientists on Wednesday called for one of Europe's largest horticultural collections near Saint Petersburg to be saved, after it survived the ravages of World War II.

A Russian arbitration court upheld in August the handover of land from the Pavlovsk station, which houses the collection, to a federal building agency.

"We are calling for urgent steps to be taken to save the Nikolai Vavilov horticultural collection," the scientists said in an open letter.

The letter was signed by US biochemist Bruce Alberts, the editor in chief of Science magazine, and scientist Valeri Soifer who teaches at a US university, among others.

Two plots of land, totalling 90 hectares (22 acres), were ceded to the federal agency which plans to construct cottages on them, the Vavilov Horticulture Institute has said.

According to botanists, it would take years to transplant the Pavlovsk collection, which could prove fatal for the plants.

Vavilov, a famed Russian genetics scientist, founded the Horticulture Institute in Saint Petersburg and its Pavlovsk station in the 1920s-1930s.

During the World War II siege by German troops of Leningrad -- as Saint Petersburg was then known -- 12 of the institute's employees died of hunger rather than touch the collection's wheat and corn seeds.

"Biologists from all countries have used the collection's unique gene pool and several crops have been created from the collection," the scientists said in their letter published by the Rossiyiskaya Gazeta newspaper.

Scientists have already appealed to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, calling on him to "preserve the future of Russian agriculture".

"I hope that the foreign scientists' attention will help us keep" the collection, Fyodor Mikhovich, head of the Pavlovsk station, told AFP.

© 2010 AFP

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