Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a renowned Russian botanist and geneticist, best known for his theory relating to “the centres of origin of cultivated plants”. Inspired by his idol, Charles Darwin, he travelled the world in the early 1900s collecting more seeds, tubers and fruits than any person in history. The collections, including many wheat landraces, were stored in a seed bank in Leningrad, now known as the N. I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources in St Petersburg, Russia. Remarkably, the unique seed collection survived the “Siege of Leningrad” during World War II. However, Vavilov himself faced an ironic fate – he was arrested for criticising the non-Mendelian concepts of a Soviet biologist, Trofim Lysenko, who had the support of Joseph Stalin. Vavilov was sentenced to death in July 1941, but in 1942 his sentence was reduced to 20 years imprisonment. Despite this, he died of starvation in prison in 1943.
Following in the footsteps of the Great Russian scientist and his colleagues, we performed the world’s first genetic analysis of Vavilov’s wheat seeds. A total of 295 diverse wheats collected from around the world were examined using 34,000 DNA markers. The genomic analysis revealed a massive array of allelic diversity that is absent in modern germplasm. We provide a summary of our ongoing efforts to discover new genes for disease resistance hidden in the Vavilov treasures. By combining several breeding technologies, we are rapidly mining new sources of resistance to major foliar diseases of wheat, including the rapidly evolving rust diseases (stripe, leaf and stem rust) and yellow spot disease.