Brazil: In the Vanguard of Genome Research

by Mario Osava

Rio de Janeiro, Jan (IPS) -- Brazil is firmly in the vanguard of genome research, as it reaches the end of a year of major advances in human health and the fight against agricultural pests, with a host of new projects on the horizon.

The Human Cancer Genome Project, aimed at unravelling the mysteries of malignant tumours, completed the genetic map of one million deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) fragments in December last.

That is not only twice the number of DNA fragments the project was initially set to decode, but is also six months ahead of deadline, stressed Andrew Simpson, a British scientist coordinating the project, who has lived in Brazil for over a decade.

Brazil thus accounts for one-third of the total human DNA sequences mapped worldwide, surpassed only by the United States’ National Cancer Institute.

The network of scientists financed by the State of Sao Paolo Foundation to Support Research (FAPESP) to decode genomes has also contributed an innovative technique that has paved the way for even greater advances in genetic research.

With the Orestes - “Open Reading frame Expressed-sequence Tags” - strategy, researchers focus on the central coding portions of genes, while scientists in industrialised countries focus on the extremities, explained the creator of the technique, Emmanuel Dias Neto, a 33-year-old biologist.

The Brazilian project has identified 200 new genes on chromosome 22, the sequencing of which was already declared complete in other countries.

Brazil took the world by surprise last February, when it deciphered the genetic code of the Xillela fastidiosa, a bacterium that attacks orange trees, causing losses of around 130 million dollars a year in Brazil, according to the Foundation for the Defence of Citrus-growers.  X. fastidiosa was the first disease-causing microorganism in the world to have its genome completely mapped out.

Brazil chose to start out by studying X. fastidiosa due to its small size - less than 3,000 genes - as well as its significance to the national economy. It also thus avoided competing with the pharmaceutical industry and advanced research centres in Europe and the United States, said FAPESP scientific director Jose Fernando Perez.

The aim was to train researchers and laboratories organised in networks to carry out genome studies in the state of Sao Paulo - the richest and most populous state in Brazil, the world’s eighth largest economy - while contributing to the fight against a major agricultural pest, he added.

>From that foundation, FAPESP went on to diversify its genome studies.  On Dec 21, it announced a new four-year, eight million- dollar project to decode the genetic map of four deadly viruses.

One of them is HIV-1, the most common local strain of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The others are viruses that cause Hepatitis C and grave respiratory and lung diseases.

The so-called Network on Virus Genetic Diversity will not limit its research to mapping the genomes of the viruses, but will also study their most common mutations and their spread in specific areas, in order to orient public health efforts and medical treatment.

FAPESP is also financing research on the genomes of other bacteria that cause losses to local farmers, while it is decoding the genome of sugar cane, which will soon become the first plant to have its entire sequence - comprised of 80,000 genes - completely mapped out.

The idea is to apply the newfound biotechnological knowledge to boosting sugar cane production over the next few years in order to further strengthen Brazil’s global leadership - which is essentially Sao Paulo’s leadership - in output of sugar and fuel alcohol based on sugar cane.

In the year 2001, FAPESP will not be on its own in genome research, which experts say will be the spearhead of scientific investigation in the next century.

In fact, genome research has become all the rage in this South American country of 168 million. A group of companies has banded together to map the genome of the eucalyptus tree. The eucalyptus, originally from Australia, is a big money-earner in Brazil as a driving force behind the paper and celulose industries.

The Ministry of Science and Technology, meanwhile, has decided to launch a nationwide Brazilian Genome Project, organising a network of 25 laboratories, and choosing for its first genetic sequencing project a bacterium found in the Amazon jungle region of Rio Negro.

C. violaceum produces a substance believed to be effective in treating several kinds of cancer, as well as the deadly Chagas disease, a tropical trypanosomiasis that attacks the vital organs and is caused by a flagellate, the Trypanosoma cruzi. The disease is common throughout the interior of Brazil and other parts of Latin America.

Three universities and two research centres in Rio de Janeiro, meanwhile, have grouped together to decipher the genetic code of Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, a bacterium that absorbs nitrogen from the air and transfers it to plants like sugar cane and coffee, enabling farmers to save money on chemical fertilisers.

Another institution in Rio de Janeiro, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, has decided to begin studying the DNA of the parasite that causes malaria.  The aim is to develop medicine against the disease that attacks 600,000 Brazilians annually and causes millions of deaths worldwide, mainly in Africa.

The University of Campinas, in the state of Sao Paulo, will focus on mapping the genome of the Crimipelis perniciosa fungus, the cause of “witches’-broom”, which cut cacao output in the eastern state of Bahia by two-thirds in the space of a decade, and reduced Brazil from an exporter to a net importer of cacao.

All of these projects, in turn, will lead to further research, since many of the genes identified are common to a range of living organisms, which helps researchers discern their functions - the big challenge today of genome research.