vernalisation and Lysenko

In Melvyn Bragg’s BBC programme In Our Time and News letter ( 5/6/2008 ) he describes how Lysenko, the controversial Russian Agronomist promoted an agricultural technique known as “vernalisation”, which can be defined as the subjection of seeds or seedlings to low temperatures in order to hasten plant development and flowering. The word vernalisation comes from the Latin word “vernus”, meaning “of the spring”. Lysenko was not the first person to discover
this technique, but he was the first to champion it as the sure fire way to improve crop yields in record time. Peasant farmers had been carrying out their own version of vernalisation for generations when they left grain out in a cold barn which served to toughen the seeds.
A young plant given a cold blast will toughen but Lysenko’s claim was that
through vernalisation one species of wheat – winter wheat could be
transformed into another – spring wheat. He germinated the winter
wheat and then subjected it to very low temperatures to halt its
growth until it was sown in spring. Lysenko believed that the shock of
the cold would cause the transformation from one species to another,
and produce greater yields. Lysenko believed that the
crucial factor in determining the length of the vegetation period in a
plant was not its genetic constitution, but its interaction with its
environment. This claims meant that wheat could potentially be grown in the barren north where previously the temperature had proved detrimental to agricultural development .
This was all before Molecular Biology transformed our thinking.
This theory came when the Ukraine and other areas were staving due to collectivisation. Lysenko was taken up at a time when millions were dying in the Ukraine from starvation. It was a desperate, desperate situation and he seemed to be offering solutions.

Martin Eastwood
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