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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Nixes Plan to Shut Seed Bank

ST. PETERSBURG -- A precious seed bank, one of the world's major sources of genes used to create better crops, survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad and may now escape government efforts to take away the building in which it is kept.

The Supreme Arbitration Court last week struck down a December 2002 government resolution to transfer ownership of two downtown St. Petersburg buildings housing the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry to the presidential property management department, local news agencies reported Monday.

The property department has three months to challenge the arbitration court's ruling and plans to do so, spokesman Viktor Khrekov told Itar-Tass.

The December transfer order warned that occupants of the buildings would have to move to accommodate federal administrative offices, raising fears that the Vavilov Institute's collection -- a key source of genes that researchers use to create higher-yield crops -- could be damaged during relocation.

Scientists at the institute were outraged by the government's decision, recalling the sacrifices employees made to save the collection during the 28-month blockade of the city during World War II, some dying of starvation while several tons of edible seeds and grain sat in the basement of the building on St. Isaac's Square.

The oldest seeds in the collection, founded in 1922 by plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, date back to 1894. Experts have estimated the value of the collection at $8 trillion.

Financial problems loomed in the wake of the Soviet collapse of 1991, but in the past decade the institute has built new seed storage facilities with the help of $5.5 million from the United States, Germany, Japan and Canada. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization plans to allocate $6 million for repairs to the institute's buildings, Interfax quoted its director, Viktor Dragavtsev, as saying.

Last December's resolution raised speculation that the Vavilov Institute and other organizations in the two buildings would be evicted to make way for the Supreme Court or a government ministry to move from Moscow to St. Petersburg.