This tribute was prepared by Michael B. Jackson (Past-President of ISPA) with the assistance of William Armstrong (founder member of ISPA), Robert M.M. Crawford (Ex-General Secretary and founder member of ISPA), V. Kuznetzov (former director of K.A. Timiriazev Institute, Moscow, Russia) and Rens (L.A.C.J.) Voesenek (immediate Past-President of ISPA)].
Boris Vartapetian died in Moscow on 12th September 2020 aged 95. His passing marks the end of a long and crusading scientific career much of it devoted to establishing plant anaerobiosis as an internationally recognised subject in its own right. In 1975, he arranged a seminal session on plant anaerobiosis at the XII International Botanical Congress, Leningrad. The contributors he invited comprised the core of scientists that slowly expanded and evolved into today’s sizeable international community of plant anaerobiosis researchers. Thus, Boris was recognisably the founding father of the International Society for Plant Anaerobiosis (ISPA), devising the actual name in 1985 as a platform for an influential UNESCO-funded international conference on plant anaerobiosis held at the K.A. Timiriazev Institute of Plant Physiology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow where he had worked since 1956. Arranging these international meetings was no mean achievement considering the difficulties posed by the ‘iron curtain’ then separating the USSR and the West. Despite the narrow biochemical connotation of the term ‘anaerobiosis’ Boris was, from the start, concerned to interpret it as widely as possible so as to embrace not only biochemistry but ecology, agronomy, whole plant physiology, cell and molecular biology, space travel, life in the oceans and more. This can readily be appreciated in his masterly introduction to the 1978 monograph ‘Plant Life in Anaerobic Environments” (Hook and Crawford, 1978) based on the 1975 Leningrad session. When, in 2004, Boris stepped down as the ISPA’s President of almost 30 years standing, a newly constituted ISPA fittingly made him Honorary Life President. In that role Boris continued to take a keen interest in the Society and to write and do research. He made a particular point of recording and updating the organisational and publishing record of ISPA (e.g., Vartapetian and Crawford, 2007). His most recent account of ISPA achievements is contained in the introductory chapter of a compilation of foundation papers drawn from various sources that Boris published privately in 2016 (Vartapetian et al., 2016).
Boris was born in 1925 in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-dominated enclave of Azerbaijan. His parents were plant biologists employed at the Polar Botanical Garden, USSR Academy of Sciences, Murmansk. Boris was drafted into the army in 1942, aged 17. After graduation from military school he served on the 1st Baltic Front as a mortar platoon officer before spending 6 months at the front-line as liaison officer. He took part in the liberation of Polotsk, Belorussia in 1944 when he was badly wounded. Boris received numerous awards and medals in recognition of this exemplary military service. In 1946, after long-term treatment in various military hospitals he enrolled as a student in the Biology Department of Moscow State University, graduating in 1952 cum laude before commencing research under the supervision of Academician A.L. Kursanov and transferrimg with him to the K. A. Timiriazev Institute of Plant Physiology, USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow. In 1966, Boris successfully defended his doctorate thesis and in 1972 was awarded a professorship (Kuznetzov and Polyakova 2010).
Official logo for the 1985 Moscow Conference
His scientific contributions include examining the extent to which species survive or perish under oxygen-deficiency because of metabolic resilience or because of strategies that avoid oxygen deficiency such as longitudinal oxygen transport along intercellular spaces (true tolerance vs. apparent tolerance). Boris used oxygen transport studies and, most notably, ultrastructural studies of mitochondria, to demonstrate internal oxygenation of root tips of tolerant plants such as rice. The ultrastructural work also gave visual credence to the notion that adverse reactions to anoxia (e.g., in rice coleoptile mitochondria) can undergo autonomous reversal by means of internal adaptive mechanisms still largely unexplained.
Boris in 2009 with Second World War military honours
There has been recent attention to the hypoxia-mediated autophagy of oxygen-consuming mitochondria observed by Boris and his co-workers. It is now thought that such mitochondria release energy-rich substrates such as amino acids and fatty acids that may prolong cell-survival under hypoxia (Hartman et al., 2019). His work with glucose supplements contributed to the view (now generally accepted) that anaerobic fermentation of sugars to ethanol enhances rather than threatens intrinsic tolerance by virtue of the energy it generates. Boris also added to the debate on the possible utility of nitrate in anaerobic metabolism and on how lipid membranes are formed anaerobically despite the usual need for molecular oxygen for unsaturated fatty acid synthesis. Towards the end of his scientific career the Presidium of Russian Academy of Sciences awarded Boris the prestigious ‘Timiryazev Prize’ for his outstanding contribution to study of plants (2004) and two years later Boris was made ‘Honoured Science Worker of the Russian Federation’ (2006). He is survived by his wife Valentina who is also a plant biologist and one-time Head of Horticulture at the Moscow State University. His son, Andrey B. Vartapetian, is a plant biochemist and Professor at the A.N. Belozersky Institute of Physical and Chemical Biology, Moscow State University. Boris’s daughter, Karine Norkina is an English-Russian translator.