July 20, 2000

Cornell and Polish research scientists lead effort to save invaluable potato genetic archive in Russia

ITHACA, N.Y. -- It took most of the last century to build one of the finest potato germplasm repositories in the world. Soon it may be a worthless, genetic morgue.

Scientists from Cornell University's Eastern Europe-Mexico (CEEM) project for potato late blight control and from the Mlochow Research Center in Poland are leading an effort to save the valuable potato collection at the N.I. Vavilov All-Russian Research Institute of Plant Industry in Pushkin and St. Petersburg, Russia.

In this collection, there are about 10,000 individual plant entities of potato, called "accessions" by scientists. All of it is potentially useful to ward off an array of potato diseases and to make the crop grow better. New aggressive strains of late blight -- the disease associated with the Irish potato famine -- are spreading into many parts of Eastern Europe and threaten potato crops all over the world. As potato diversity continues to narrow, entire potato crops are in danger of being wiped out by a new disease or pest.

"The Vavilov collection, which could help save potatoes, is in peril itself," says K.V. Raman, Cornell professor of plant breeding and the executive director of CEEM. "The potato collections at the Vavilov Institute and elsewhere serve as a source of useful genes that can provide resistance against aggressive late blight pathogen strains as well as provide other valuable, genetic traits."

Raman says the collection lacks a good watering system and suitable greenhouse soil fumigation procedures. In May, CEEM delivered pathogen-testing kits because until then there was no way to test the in vitro part of the collection for disease. The facility, says Raman, lacks dependable electric heaters and ventilation, making the storage of tubers difficult. He describes torn window screens and broken windows that allow pests in.

Patrick Russo, a Cornell plant pathology researcher, delivered tuber disease detection kits in May. He reports that staff wages, which range from $10 to $20 a week, sometimes cannot be paid because the Russian government can't afford it. He brought back photographs of used refrigeration units, donated by NATO just a few years ago, that still sport Cold War camouflage paint on the doors. While there, Russo helped to install the CEEM-donated, state-of-the-art personal computers for data storage.

In recent years, the Vavilov scientists have repeatedly appealed to international donor agencies for help. The effort made little headway, since international agencies have found money earmarked for such good causes often ends up diverted to other Russian projects.

CEEM's challenge then was to convince interested donors that the Vavilov Institute would be different. With modest support from donors such as the Wallace Genetic Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service and an anonymous donor, a few projects were started.

The Cornell group and Ewa Zimnoch-Gujowska, a potato breeder at the Mlochow Research Center and a Cornell adjunct associate professor in plant pathology, began to implement projects that would preserve some of the strategic potato varieties. The CEEM-supported scientists are helping to duplicate Vavilov wild potato seeds for a potato center in Poland. Since all the Vavilov tubers are diseased, the CEEM scientists are collaborating to free them of pathogenic problems. Currently none of the tubers can be shipped from the institute, says Raman, because they are quarantined. Scientists from the United States and Poland are helping the Vavilov scientists update their research skills by training them in the use of advanced pathogen detection and germplasm evaluation techniques.

In the Vavilov collection are more than 190 Russian cultivars, about 2,600 accessions (types) of potatoes grown in the Andes Mountains (Andigena) and about 2,500 types of potatoes derived from 70 wild species that may be resistant to late blight, blackleg, wart and other potato pathogens. The collection also contains many hybrids of wild potato species.

"Some of them are quite unique and not found as duplicates in other collections maintained elsewhere," says Raman. There are primitive cultivars originally from Chile consisting of 120 potato types, and there are hybrids created as a desired resistance source to late blight and potato virus Y (PVY.)

This isn't the collection's first bout with potential annihilation. During the 872-day siege of Leningrad during World War II, the Nazis and the Finns occupied the city. During the siege's first winter, the scientists had to move the valuable germplasm at the National Scientific Institute of Plant Growing experiment station, as it was known then, to an alternative site in the basement of a building on Gertzen Street in Leningrad. The collection shared its quarters with a hospital.

A small wood stove that kept the cultivars warm in the face of frigid temperatures demanded constant replenishment. Soldiers, orderlies and even wounded patients from the hospital floors above broke up chairs, tables, buffets and other furniture to feed the potatoes' stove, keeping the collection warm.

"The survival of the potato collection at the institute is now threatened again," says Raman. "A major part of this collection lost its germination ability. Copies of seeds of these accessions [potato lines] are very old and must be regenerated by planting. The loss of the collection would be a great irony after it survived the siege of Leningrad. Its loss would deal a severe blow to the potato germplasm pool available for disease-resistance breeding."