Scientists emphasize the increasing importance of natural science collections worldwide
Currently unfolding in Russia is the potential loss of more than 5,000 distinct varieties of fruit trees and plants, most of which are extinct or endangered around the world. These plants are held at the Pavlovsk Experiment Station near Saint Petersburg and the site is slated to be auctioned off by the Russian government for development later this month. According to a joint letter of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), the station is an irreplaceable resource to humanity; its loss would reduce options for adaptation to future plant diseases, environmental changes, or the need for increased agricultural productivity.
“We urge the Russian government to avert the imminent plans to bulldoze this site for development,” said ESA President Terry Chapin. “Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov established this unique plant collection and deliberately destroying this rich genetic holding would be a tremendous loss for future generations.”
Lack of funds, loss of technically trained staff and inadequate protection against natural disasters, are jeopardizing natural science collections worldwide. For example, in May of this year an accidental fire destroyed roughly 80,000 of the 500,000 venomous snake—and an estimated 450,000 spider and scorpion—specimens at the Butantan Institute in São Paolo, Brazil. The 100-year-old collection featured some rare and extinct species and contributed to the development of numerous vaccines, serums and antivenoms. The building that housed these specimens, including what may have been the largest collection of snakes in the world, lacked fire alarm or sprinkler systems.
“Biological collections, whether living or non-living, are vitally important to humanity,” says Dr. Joseph Travis, president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. “Natural science collections have provided insights into a wide variety of biological issues and pressing societal problems. These research centers help identify new food sources, develop treatments for disease and suggest how to control invasive pests. Natural science collections belong to the world and cannot be limited by geographic borders.”
Travis goes on to say that governments and non-governmental organizations need to work collaboratively to ensure that we maintain and conserve the irreplaceable genetic information that has been collected by scientists over the past several hundred years. “For example, the proposed elimination of the Pavlovsk Experiment Station in Russia would close one of the doors on future innovations in Russian science and agriculture and, by doing so, hinder Russia’s ability to contribute to developing new food crops for the world.”
The living collections at the Pavlovsk Experiment Station have been cultivated in part to serve as a type of insurance against future plant diseases or catastrophic events. Specifically, seed banks, germplasm and living plant collections are critical in reintroducing food sources should humanity experience a global food pandemic, because of a new crop disease or widespread drought. Established by the internationally acclaimed Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, many of the samples in this 200 acre field station have been cultivated since 1926 to understand and adapt to future agricultural threats.
In their joint letter, ESA and AIBS recommend that government and non-governmental organizations that fund scientific research increase investments in the physical and human infrastructure of living and non-living natural science collections. “Scientific collections should not be sacrificed for short-term economic gains nor allowed to slowly degrade by lack of funding,” warned the two scientific organizations. “It is imperative that governments around the world recognize the value of these collections and act accordingly.”
In the case of the Pavlovsk Experiment Station, ESA and AIBS strongly encourage the Russian government to reconsider the destruction of this irreplaceable resource.
The ESA-AIBS joint letter is available at: www.esa.org/pao/policyStatements/Letters/Letter%20re%20Vavilov%20Institute%20of%20Plant%20Industry.pdf