Brazil: Showcases cutting-edge genome research

by Mario Osava

Rio de Janeiro, 26 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- Brazil is celebrating its rite of passage into the ranks of the global scientific elite with an international conference on genome research that opened Monday in the town of Angra dos Reis, 180 km south of Rio de Janeiro.

Among the roughly 50 foreign researchers invited to the conference are celebrities like Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry Walter Gilbert, and Gene Myers of Celera, the US company that just finished mapping the human genome.

Also participating are a large part of the nearly 500 Brazilian researchers involved in the country’s various genome-mapping projects - an area in which South America’s giant has been involved for three years, and in which it has already chalked up more results than most industrialised countries.

This is Brazil’s first opportunity to present the results of its genome research in its entirety to a qualified audience.

Brazil is one of the most advanced countries in the world in the field of genetic research, and the only developing nation that masters the technology, said Andrew Simpson, a British scientist who has lived here for 12 years and has played a key role in such research.

Last July, Brazil took the scientific world by surprise when it published in the British journal Nature, the genetic map of the Xillela fastidiosa, a bacterium that attacks orange trees and costs this country $130 million a year in losses.

X. fastidiosa was the first pest to have its genome completely mapped out. A network of research centres financed by the State of Sao Paulo Research Support Fund (FAPESP) and coordinated by Simpson carried out the pioneer research.

The other research projects that have mushroomed throughout the country have also been oriented by a strategy of focussing efforts on projects that respond to the needs of Brazil’s agricultural sector.

Last year, a research team deciphered the genetic code of Xanthomonas citri, which causes citrus canker, while other scientists are focussing on Xanthomonas campestris, which attacks horticulture, and a strain of Xillela that attacks grapes in California - the studies are being carried out on behalf of US vine growers - and Lifsonia xyli, which attacks sugar cane.

Sugar cane itself, chosen due to its significance to the Brazilian economy, was the first plant to have its genome completely mapped out in Brazil.

To boost production, universities in Rio de Janeiro joined forces to study a bacterium, which, when inserted into sugar cane and coffee bushes, absorbs nitrogen from the air, thus saving farmers money on fertilisers.

Eucalyptus, a tree that is native to Oceania and basic to Brazil’s cellulose and paper industries, is another plant whose genome is being studied here.

Brazil might also come up with a solution to the pest that drastically reduced the production of cacao beans in Brazil, “witches’ broom”, thanks to studies in the University of Campinas - near Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city - of the genetic map of the fungus that causes the disease.

Contributing to human health is the goal, meanwhile, of Brazilian researchers studying the genes of several of the most common malignant tumours, who made an important contribution to the map of the human genome as deciphered by a global network of public institutions.

In addition, a national network was set up to study a bacterium discovered in the Amazon jungle region of Rio Negro, which produces an antibiotic substance believed to be efficacious against the deadly Chagas disease, which is common in rural areas of South America, and against some kinds of cancer.

Genome-mapping projects have also given a major boost to a branch that is indispensable to genetic research: bioinformatics. One of Brazil’s contributions was the so-called “Orestes strategy”, developed by Emmanuel Dias Neto, a 33-year-old biologist.

The method, which differs from those used in research centres elsewhere, makes possible faster progress in identifying new genes, thus complementing information collected in rich countries, said Dias Neto.

Fernando Perez, the scientific director of FAPESP and one of the main promoters of genome research in Brazil, said the country should repeat, in the field of genetics, the success enjoyed by its aeronautics industry, which has conquered the world’s most demanding international markets with its medium-sized passenger jets.

The growing sales by the Brazilian Aeronautics Company have led to an ongoing trade dispute with Canada, whose Bombardier airplane manufacturer has lost market share to Brazil.

The key factor in the progress made in the field of genome research is the cooperation among nationwide networks of research centres, said Perez, who pointed out that more than 100 university departments and independent institutions are taking part in the research.