Ecological path

From basic research to public policies, FAPESP has been investing for five decades in biodiversity studies

Imagem: PERSONAL ARCHIVESAylthon and Carlos Joly: from marine algae to Biota-FAPESPImagem: PERSONAL ARCHIVES

Published in August 2011

Hundreds of São Paulo researchers in disciplines connected with the study of biodiversity met in São Carlos, in early July, to discuss the progress of their work . Concurrently, an evaluation committee comprised of foreign scientists analyzed the set of results presented and suggested paths for upcoming years. The two events highlighted the seventh evaluation of the Program of Research on Characterization, Conservation, Recovery and Sustainable Use of the Biodiversity of the State of São Paulo, better known as Biota-FAPESP, an effort that began in 1999 (read report here) and that involves 1,200 professionals in the identification of São Paulo biodiversity,

The program has promoted more than one hundred research projects and has enabled the progress of knowledge, including the identification of 1,766 species (1,109 microorganisms, 564 invertebrates and 93 vertebrates), as well as the publication of more than 1,145 scientific articles, 20 books, 2 atlases and several maps that have started guiding public policy. At present, the state of São Palo has six governmental decrees and 13 resolutions that mention the guidance provided by the program. In the area of training human resources, it has led to 190 master’s degrees, 120 PhDs and 86 post-doctorates. In the first 10 years of this program alone, FAPESP has invested R$82 million.

Biota-FAPESP is the first Brazilian scientific program to receive investments regularly for more than 10 years, notes its coordinator, the botanist Carlos Alfredo Joly, a professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). When the program reached its 10th anniversary, its organizers proposed to FAPESP a new scientific plan for the next 10 years. “This evaluation meeting is very special, because it is the first to be held since FAPESP renewed its support for the program up to 2020,” says Joly. “A long-term outlook is fundamental for scientific research,” he stated. Biota-FAPESP is the main example of heavy investment by the Foundation in research in the field of the natural sciences and ecology, all of which started long before the name biodiversity was coined. In its earlier years, FAPESP was already supporting studies about marine algae, at first on the state’s coast (1962-1963) and subsequently on the northern, northeastern and eastern coasts of Brazil (1964-1965), carried out by the Department of Botany at the former School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature, at USP, subsequently incorporated into the Institute of Biosciences (IB). The survey conducted along the coast of the state led to several research studies published in scientific journals, the training of marine biologists specialized in algae, and the expansion of the algae herbarium at the Department of Botany. As for the survey of the algae flora of the rest of the Brazilian coast, it was part of an international cooperation project, which had the support of the Section of Oceanography of Unesco. The set of results of these projects is the first version of the Marine Phycological Flora of Brazil.

A key person working on this line of research was Aylthon Brandão Joly (1924-1975), a University of São Paulo professor, who started, in the 1950s, to study algae in Brazil. In 1957, he published the book Contribuição ao conhecimento da flora ficológica marinha da baía de Santos and arredores [Contribution to the knowledge of marine phycological flora in the bay of Santos and surroundings], the first planned survey of algae in a specific area of Brazil. “Up until more or less 1960, Joly worked by himself at the university. As from then, he formed, in the Department of Botany of USP a veritable school, having been directly or indirectly the advisor of most of the first generation of Brazilian phycologists and also of phycologists from other Latin American countries,” wrote Carlos Bicudo, a researcher at the Institute of Botany of São Paulo, in the article “O estudo de algas no estado de São Paulo” [The study of algae in the state of São Paulo], published in 1998. Aylthon Joly left many descendants – one of them in both the literal and the academic sense of the term. His son, Carlos Alfredo Joly, the coordinator of Biota-FAPESP, followed his father’s example. “There’s a generation of marine algae researchers that are my father’s academic grandchildren,” says Joly. “Professor Mariana Cabral de Oliveira from USP and a member of the coordination of the Biota-FAPESP Program, is a good example of this new generation, because, in addition, by incorporating DNA bar coding techniques into her research, she has shown the same innovative spirit that has always characterized Brazilian phycologists.”

Imagem: MIGUEL BOYAYANWater reservoirs
In the 1970’s, when FAPESP took the initiative to organize special projects, it decided to dedicate one of them to the field of ecology and commissioned a proposal from professor José Galizia Tundisi, who back then was already a reference on water studies. The result was the project Typology of the Water Reservoirs in the State of São Paulo, which involved 70 researchers from the Laboratory of Limnology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), the Institute of Biosciences of USP, and the Institute of Fishing at the Agricultural Bureau of the State of São Paulo. “At that time, a researcher from Spain had conducted a study on the profile of 104 water reservoirs in that country, taking into account the biology of the waters, contamination and pollution, and I proposed a similar design,” says Tundisi. The project yielded robust scientific fruit. It expanded the understanding of the workings of water reservoirs, clarifying the differences between them and lakes. It enriched the collections of aquatic organisms kept at research institutes and it led to the publication of 150 studies in Brazil and abroad, along with four books (three in other countries), besides yielding 10 PhDs and 15 master’s degrees. It also enabled, for instance, the development of an unprecedented methodology for comparing the aquatic ecosystems of Brazil. Additionally, it generated a set of information about the geographic distributions of aquatic organisms and the characteristics of the reservoirs that had an effect upon the use of hydrographic basins and that, to this day, form the basis of new studies. Finally, it set parameters for the management of reservoirs. “We managed to determine that the ideal amount of time to retain water in the reservoirs must be less than 10 days to ensure the quality of the water and the health of the ecosystems. When the water in a reservoir takes too long to be replaced, the retained pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus have an impact on the maintenance of the species. This information was fundamental for the planning of new hydroelectric power stations,” states Tundisi. Once the project was approved, Tundisi sought out the scientific director of FAPESP, William Saad Hossne, and said that he had a new requirement. “I asked for 15 young investigator awards to train new researchers within the project. This turned out to be a success. Of the 15 young researchers, 13 are now head professors,” says the researcher.

If the study about water reservoirs trained leaders and created competence in the field of knowledge, the Phanerogamic Flora of the State of São Paulo project was a landmark in terms of learning how to work in a multi-institutional environment. Subsequently, this was to acquire a broader outline involving networks of institutions and researchers under the Biota-FAPESP program. The project, which began in 1993, brought together experts from the three state universities – Unicamp, USP and Paulista State University (Unesp) -, from three research institutes – Botanical, Forestial and Agronomical – and of one municipal body – the Department of Parks and Green Areas of the São Paulo City Government. One of the chief contributions under way for the knowledge of the diversity of Brazilian flora, it has already yielded six volumes with the description of the species of phanerogamic plants, i.e., those that produce flowers. The idea is to publish another 10, besides updating on the internet the earlier works.

The aim of the project was to fill a gap on environmental conservation in Brazil, which was being discussed by the members of SBB (the Botanical Society of Brazil) – Brazilian flora, acknowledged to be the one with the largest number of species, was also among the least known and most threatened on the planet. “In 1992, at the National Congress of Botany, held in [the city of] Aracaju, [state of] Sergipe, the principles for the preparation of the Flora of Brazil were consolidated and approved. This not only provided for the study of vegetation, but also for the training of human resources and the establishment of botanical expedition programs in the country’s different ecosystems,” recalls Maria das Graças Lapa Wanderley, a researcher at the Institute of Botany who now coordinates the project. The following year, with FAPESP’s first public call for thematic projects, the botanists at a congress in the city of São Luís in the state of Maranhão decided to submit a proposal, using the plan of the flora of the state of São Paulo as a pilot project. The coordination of this was undertaken by professor Hermógenes de Freitas Leitão Filho (1944-1996), from the Department of Botany of Unicamp, one of the few Brazilian experts on the Compositae family, which has some 10 thousand species, including daisies, chamomile and several medicinal plants.

The first two years were a planning phase, including a survey of the collections at herbariums, which enabled the creation of the project’s database. The second phase consisted of the scientific expeditions, most of them held between 1996 and 1997. They resulted in approximately 20 thousand plants, distributed to the state’s herbariums. When Hermógenes Leitão died suddenly in February of 1996, while leading a field trip, the project coordination was transferred to Maria das Graças Lapa Wanderley, George Shepherd, from Unicamp, and Ana Maria Giulietti, from USP. The third phase led to divulging the results, the publication of 16 volumes having been forecast. FAPESP continued to support the project until 2005. The six volumes published so far describe 132 families, including 655 genera and 2,767 species, or 37% of the 7,058 referred species of São Paulo state. “All the researchers who want to study a phanerogamous plant consult our databases. The impact of the project extends to all other fields of botany,” says Maria das Graças Wanderley.

Imagem: ANTONINHO PERRI / ASCOM / UNICAMPHermógenes Leitão: Phanerogamic FloraImagem: ANTONINHO PERRI / ASCOM / UNICAMP

The Phanerogamic Flora project inspired Biota-FAPESP. In 1995, the Bureau of the Environment of the State of São Paulo tried, in vain, to involve researchers in work that went beyond preparing a list of the state’s threatened species. “There were lots of gaps in our knowledge, but the researchers resisted commitment, fearing that eventual political changes at the bureau might jeopardize the work’s continuity,” says Carlos Joly, then an advisor to the secretary of the Environment, Fabio Feldmann. At the time, Joly was also a member of the Coordination of Biological Sciences at FAPESP, working with professor Naércio Menezes. “The idea of a research program about biodiversity was maturing in FAPESP. I had talked a lot with professor Hermógenes at Unicamp and was highly familiar with the Phanerogamic Flora program. However, unlike the latter, which was a thematic project centered on just one taxonomic group, we wanted to encompass all of the biodiversity of the state, which, obviously, wouldn’t fit under a single thematic project,” recalls Joly. The idea of creating a program with a set of articulated thematic projects was presented by a scientific director of FAPESP, José Fernando Perez, at a workshop held in the town of Serra Negra, in 1997. The group in charge of coordination at the time (see details at decided to use the internet to create tools to integrate and share data. And so the Virtual Institute of Biodiversity (another name used for Biota-FAPESP) came into being.

The data accrued by Biota-FAPESP now provides guidance for the criteria to create new conservation units and for authorization for the removal of native vegetation. It also forms the bases of the agroecological zoning for sugarcane plantations in the state of São Paulo. Government decrees and the resolutions of the Bureau of the Environment mention and takes into account the maps of the priority conservation and restoration areas of São Paulo biodiversity, produced by the Biota Program.

If the first 10 years of Biota-FAPESP were underscored by the progress of the characterization of biodiversity in the use of the database as a tool for the improvement of public policies, the program now aims to broaden its scope. The subprogram BIOprospecTA, which looks for compounds or molecules of economic interest, particularly merits highlighting. Additionally, the Biota-FAPESP program now also produces educational material for elementary, junior high and high schools, as well as studies connected with ecosystem services and with the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. “Professor Arthur Chapman, from the Australian Service of Information on Biodiversity and a member of the international evaluation committee, praised the program, saying that it strives to implement the suggestions that the committee had made previously,” says Joly. “In 2008, the evaluators criticized the small number of marine biology and microorganisms projects. Now, there are 10 new marine biology projects and, in the case of microorganisms, in which there was only one thematic project, more than 40 proposals were submitted after the last call for proposals. These are capable groups and the coordination has had the sensitivity to listen to the wishes of the São Paulo scientific community. That is why these things are occurring so quickly,” says Joly.