For the sake of plant and animal health

Established 90 years ago, the Biological Institute has become a center for research in plant and animal health in Brazil

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute Artist’s rendering of the building designed by engineer Mário WhatelyImagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

In the early 1920s, when coffee growing in São Paulo had reached its peak, a calamity struck the coffee plantations. A minuscule beetle, whose larvae attacked the coffee fruit, or cherries, was sucking up the pulp, hollowing out the fruit and threatening the entire crop. Mechanisms had to be developed to combat the so-called coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei). To that end, the São Paulo state government formed a commission of researchers headed by physician and entomologist Arthur Neiva. The result was an action that proved to be a precursor of biological control—using a wasp imported from Uganda, Africa. The commission’s work paved the way for founding an institution that would exercise permanent authority over the situation, including defining and publishing measures to fight the borer and verifying that the prescribed measures were implemented by the plantations. Established 90 years ago in December 1927, the Biological Institute for Agricultural and Animal Protection—now known simply as the Biological Institute, became a center of excellence in plant and animal health research and one of the principal arenas for scientific discussion in Brazil. It is still a reference point for researchers in Brazil and other countries.

Establishment of the Biological Institute was inspired by the restless spirit of Arthur Neiva (1880-1943), it’s first director. Born in the city of Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, Neiva began his studies at the Bahia College of Medicine and completed them in Rio de Janeiro in 1903. A disciple of public health officer Oswaldo Cruz (1872-1917), he began working with Cruz at the Serotherapy Institute—now the Oswaldo Cruz Institute. In 1910, he traveled to Washington D.C. to study medical entomology. Three years later, in 1913 while in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he discovered a new species of Triatoma, the beetle responsible for transmitting Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease. He returned to Argentina in 1915 to set up and direct the Animal Zoology and Parasitology Section of the Bacteriology Institute in Buenos Aires and spent two years there before returning to Brazil to head up the Sanitary Service of the state of São Paulo.

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute Introduction of President Getúlio Vargas and Ademar de Barros (with moustache) to the Biological Institute in 1945Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

When the Biological Institute was founded, Neiva assumed its directorship and continued the strategies in place for controlling the coffee berry borer as proposed in the report produced by the commission he chaired. A few months later, the institute expanded its activities to other areas. At the time, various houses scattered around the city had been rented to house the laboratories that comprised the Institute’s Parasitology, Virology and Ornithopathology and Bacteriology sections. José Reis (1907-2002) and Paulo da Cunha Nóbrega (1907-1974), physicians assigned to the latter, were experts in ornithopathology and worked on diagnosing diseases that afflicted hens, in an attempt to assist local chicken farmers. “The work was very well organized,” explains agronomist Antonio Batista Filho, current director of the Biological Institute. “The farmer would bring in the chicken, alive or dead, describe the symptoms, and after studying the case the researchers would suggest a method for treating or managing the flock,” says Batista.

Experimentation was a constant in the Ornithopathology and Bacteriology labs: the agent would be isolated and the disease reproduced for more detailed study. The knowledge thus generated was then taken by José Reis to the cooperatives and small farms in the state’s interior, where lectures were given to educate farmers about the health of their animals. The satisfaction Reis gained and his ability to explain scientific concepts to a broader audience led him to write books in accessible, non-scientific language and produce a long-running column on scientific communication in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.

As the institution grew, it became necessary to bring all the laboratories together at a single site. Neiva negotiated the donation of a publicly owned track of land in Vila Mariana, in the southern zone of the city of São Paulo, on which to build the headquarters of the Biological Institute. The land at the selected site had little value; it was a floodplain full of birds and small pools. Occupying an area of 240,000 sq. meters, it extended into what is today Ibirapuera Park. Construction began in 1928. The plans, developed by São Paulo architect Mário Whately (1885-1943), called for an imposing structure in art deco style using geometric shapes influenced by avant-garde movements like cubism and constructivism. Meanwhile the design of the surrounding parks and gardens, reserved for use as experimental fields planted with coffee and fruit trees, were designed by Belgian landscape architect Arsène Puttemans (1873-1937). The original plans were never fully executed however. Construction of the building was finished in 1945.

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute Physician Arthur Neiva, first director, 1927-1931Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

Military occupations
During the 1930 Revolution, the building was used by troops from Rio Grande do Sul. On November 17, Whately reported to the secretary of Highways and Public Works that the Institute had been taken over by 800 soldiers from the 5th Engineering Battalion. “The soldiers are sleeping right there in a building under construction and their food is being prepared on the 2nd floor,” warned the engineer in a letter discovered later and now being preserved by biologist Márcia Rebouças. She is a member of the staff of the Institute’s Memory Center, which boasts a collection of 340,000 documents, including newspapers, articles, scientific drawings, photographs, etc. In April 1932, during the Constitutionalist Revolution, the building was again occupied—this time by soldiers from the 2nd Engineering Battalion who were getting ready to fight the constitutionalist troops. “The successive occupations accelerated the transfer of the laboratories to the building even before it was finished,” Márcia says.

A year prior to the start of construction, Neiva had invited Rio de Janeiro pathologist and microbiologist Henrique da Rocha Lima (1879-1956) to take over as head of the Institute’s Animal Division. Rocha Lima had graduated from the School of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro in 1901 and, like Neiva, had also worked at the Serotherapy Institute, where he came to know Oswaldo Cruz. Acquaintance with that public health authority changed the course of Rocha Lima’s career by leading him out of clinical practice and into scientific activities.

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute During the 1930 Revolution, the Biological Institute, still unfinished, was occupied as a military encampment for the soldiers of the 5th Engineering BattalionImagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

In 1901 Rocha Lima left for Germany to conduct an internship at the Microbiology and Pathologic Anatomy Laboratory of the Hygiene Institute in Berlin. While abroad, he built a solid international career as an anatomical pathologist and bacteriologist, the apex of which was the discovery of the cause of exanthematic typhus, in 1916 (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 190). During that period, he worked at the University of Jena and at the Tropical Diseases Institute in Hamburg. “Rocha Lima achieved a position in the German academic world that was unusual for a South American scientist,” says historian André Felipe Cândido da Silva, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz House of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), and author of a doctoral thesis on the path of the noted Brazilian and the scientific relationships between Brazil and Germany during the first half of the 20th century. “As it was not very likely that he would have won posts of greater prestige and owing to circumstances in his personal life, Rocha Lima accepted Neiva’s invitation to work at the newly created institute in São Paulo.”

Politically well connected, Neiva left the Biological Institute in 1931, when then-President Getúlio Vargas invited him to serve as his conservator in Salvador, Bahia. Rocha Lima assumed the position of director of the Biological Institute in 1933, amid controversy surrounding the succession, provoked by the turbulent civil uprising that had occurred the previous year in São Paulo. “On several occasions, Neiva accused the bacteriologist of taking advantage of the circumstances to stoke the animosity against him that lingered among members of the Institute in order to take over as director,” Cândido da Silva recalls.

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute Poster distributed to farmers, publicizing methods for combatting the coffee berry borerImagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

Under the leadership of Rocha Lima, the Biological Institute became an internationally-respected research center, fostering the interface between basic and applied research as well as relationships with local farmers. That was when the institute expanded its work against the coffee berry borer by breeding and propagating the wasp brought from Uganda in its laboratories. From June to August 1936, 228,000 specimens of wasps were sent to 270 farmers. By 1939, more than two million of those insects had been distributed to various regions of Brazil. It was also during the 1930s that the institute invested in the contracting of Brazilian and foreign researchers to work in different fields. Among them was Karl Martin Silberschmidt, a German who started to work on organizing the Plant Physiology section of the Biological Institute.

Aware of the importance of disseminating knowledge, in 1935 Rocha Lima introduced the journal O Biológico [The Biological], which, along with the journal Arquivos do Instituto Biológico [Archives of the Biological Institute], introduced by Neiva in 1928 published items directed toward farmers and their field workers and scientific articles for the community of researchers. On another front, he instituted what became known as “the Friday meetings” at which researchers from the Biological Institute and other institutions discussed pertinent scientific articles. “The Biological Institute was one of the first centers of scientific debate in the state of São Paulo,” says Antonio Batista Filho. Besides Rocha Lima, researchers like José Reis and Zeferino Vaz, who was the brainchild behind the University of Campinas (Unicamp), established in 1966 (see Especial Unicamp 50 anos) also participated. “It was during those meetings that early plans were laid for the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) and Brazilian Entomology Society,” Márcia Rebouças reports.

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute Henrique da Rocha Lima (in lab coat) and Italian anatomy specialist Alfonso Bovero (in glasses and bow tie) during one of the Friday meetingsImagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

Also created at the time was the Scientific Planning and Documentation Service, which included units on Experiments Planning, Photomicrography, Library, and Design. The latter became a prominent part of the Biological Institute. In all, from the 1930s to the 1970s, 17 artists produced a profusion of illustrations of plants, animals and their diseases in order to lend visibility to the research that was the subject of scientific papers, classes, advertising leaflets, and other media (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 238). The illustrations richly portrayed elements and, with scientific accuracy, depicted the details of insects, mites, larvae, organs of animals, vegetables, plants and the diseases affecting them. They were recording, translating, and supplementing the observations made and the scientific experiments conducted at the Institute.

In 1942, Rocha Lima set up a Biology Division, responsible for basic research, based on the work being done by agronomists and veterinarians in combatting pests and diseases. Also established were the divisions of Plant Sanitary Protection and Animal Sanitary Protection, as well as the Scientific Education and Documentation division. Years later, in 1947, the Biology Division was split in two—Plant Biology and Animal Biology. “That was an extremely prolific era at the Biological Institute,” Márcia Rebouças recalls. “The Institute began to manufacture 30 different products to promote animal health throughout Brazil, signing contracts with veterinary pharmaceutical firms,” she noted.

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute Landscape plan designed by Arsène Puttemans wrapped parks and gardens around the buildingImagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

Pressure under control 
Late in the 1940s, another important feat was performed at the Biological Institute. Physicians Maurício Rocha e Silva (1910-1983), Wilson Teixeira Beraldo (1917-1998), and Gastão Rosenfeld (1912-1990) identified the so-called Bradykinin Potentiating Factor present in the plasma globulin of the venom of the Bothrops jararaca snake. The substance, it was later found, relaxed muscles and blood vessels and so was viewed as a potential means of regulating blood pressure. The discovery resulted in a 1949 report in the inaugural issue of the journal Ciência e Cultura [Science and Culture] published by the recently-established SBPC. In 1950, an expanded version of the paper was published in the American Journal of Physiology. Sometime later, bradykinin became the primary active ingredient in blood pressure drugs.

Rocha Lima retired in 1949 at the age of 70. His place was taken by agronomist Agesilau Antonio Bitancourt (1899-1987), who until then had headed the Plant Biology division. During his administration, from 1949 to 1953, Bitancourt instituted three one-year training courses–in phytopathology, agricultural entomology, and animal pathology–that attracted professionals from all over Brazil.

Imagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute Every May, the Taste of the Harvest is held at the Biological Institute, symbolically marking the beginning of the coffee harvest in São PauloImagem: Reproductions from the Memory Center of the Biology Institute

During the 1970s, the Institute expanded its work in the development of agricultural pesticides thanks to a partnership forged with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that enabled it to purchase equipment and improve its physical facilities, such as the Pilot Center for Formulation of Agricultural Pesticides situated on the Mato Dentro Experimental Farm in Campinas. In 1988, the first Annual Meeting of the Biological Institute (RAIB) was held there, bringing together researchers and students from the fields of plant and animal health and environmental protection, as well as agribusiness professionals, to discuss the problems of agriculture in Brazil.

Today the Biological Institute is suffering as a result of the departure of researchers to universities, companies, and federally-funded institutions, who are not being replaced with skilled personnel. Even so, the Institute is still one of the leading centers in phytosanitary and zoosanitary diagnosis in Brazil. It owns one of only two Brazilian laboratories that produce immunobiologicals used to diagnose animal brucellosis and tuberculosis, which it distributes to several Brazilian states as well as other Latin America countries. It also serves 90% of the Artificial Insemination Centers in Brazil, performing examinations to diagnose diseases associated with animal reproduction. It can perform 350 kinds of examinations pertaining to animals, plants and residues in food, performing an average of 500 diagnoses a day, as well as participating in campaigns against hoof-and-mouth disease, rabies, tuberculosis, brucellosis, citrus canker disease, and citrus variegated chlorosis.

In 2007, the Institute began to offer master’s and doctoral courses. More recently it decided to invest in educational events, making the public more aware of the activities carried out under programs like Open Door Biology and Planet Insect. These are held at the Museum of the Biological Institute, site of the famous cockroach races, held on a circuit dubbed the Cockroach Dome.  Every year the Institute also sponsors the Taste of the Harvest event that symbolically celebrates the start of the coffee harvest in São Paulo State. “Participants are invited to pick coffee berries from the 1,500 trees planted on Biological Institute property,” Antonio Batista explains.