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A life breath for the biology laboratories

Investments have allowed for a quality leap in the area

In the main research centers in biosciences in the State of São Paulo, excitement is running high due the leap in competence observed in this area over the last few years. The principal evidence of the change can be seen in the recent results of genome research, initiated in 1997 with the Xylella Genome project, carried out by a network of close to 200 researchers at more than three dozen laboratories, in the first complete sequencing of a phytopathogen. The result brought national and international recognition to the competency of the scientists. For the coordinator of the Human Genome Center of the University of São Paulo, Dr. Mayana Zatz, the conclusion of that project showed in a clear and distinct manner that it is possible to carry out front line research here in Brazil.

However, it is the consensus of opinion among the researchers that this scientific advance would not have been possible if a few years before FAPESP had not begun to invest in the renovation of the laboratories and research installations in the State of São Paulo through the Infrastructure Program.

“It was very pleasing to note FAPESP’s perception that it wasn’t sufficient just to invest in research activities leaving the infra-structure of the laboratories as the responsibility of the institutions” says Mayana. The general director of the Biology Institute, Vera Cecília Annes Ferreira, agrees and adds, “The greater part of the annual budget of the institutions had been spent on payroll. At the very maximum, it was possible to do some minor repairs, and was certainly not enough to keep updated the infrastructure that the laboratories needed.”

In reality, the situation of the majority of the biology laboratories until the mid-90’s was precarious. The structures, without repairs, were deteriorating. Nearly everything was lacking in order to carry out research: space, adequate benches, electrical circuits, water, heating and security systems as well as equipment. Even more serious, in many cases the problems were so deep that the situation put the researchers health at risk or jeopardized the research results. Leaks in the roof threatened the equipment and made the walls humid, a creating a breeding ground for colonies of fungi. The dampness put at risk the structure of entire buildings and undermined the experiments results. Besides the risk of collapse, there was also the risk of fire, caused by the fragility of the electrical installations and of the improvised connections with which the activities were maintained.

A snail’s pace
These problems with the infrastructure were extremely common and were part of the day-to-day routine in the main public universities of the State – USP, Unicamp and Unesp, and also of important research centers of the country such as the Biology and Botany Institutes as well as the Butantan Institute. It was evident that these precarious circumstances imperiled research results. In spite of persistency and the good will of the researchers, biology in Brazil was getting further and further behind.

“The situation left me anguished. While the researchers in other countries were flying on a jet, we here were walking at a snail’s pace”, compares Mayana. “We didn’t have equipment and we had to borrow from others. We walked for kilometers to analyze something here and something there”, recalls the scientist. Beginning with the investment of the Infra resources, things began to change.

FAPESP invested in the biology laboratories some R$ 27.8 million, benefiting among others the Bioscience Institutions of USP in São Paulo, of Unesp in Botucatu and Rio Claro, the Biology, Arts and Science Institute of São José do Rio Preto (also part of Unesp), the Biology Institute of Unicamp and the State research institutes: The Butantan, The Biology Institute and The Botany. The investment allowed for reforms and the modernization of the laboratories which today are able to act in the most diverse lines of research.

Another positive aspect of these reforms, highlighted by Ivo Lebrun of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the Butantan Institute, was the strengthening of the interchange among the researchers themselves. “The presence of researchers from other institutions increased, even from abroad, who felt motivated since the laboratory now has the conditions to develop more advanced research”, he states. The scientific community celebrated the occasion. The laboratories have become more spacious, which led towards more autonomy for the research teams, which, in some cases, created an informal rotational system so that they could occupy the laboratories and use the equipment in shifts, and they have better conditions to take on a larger number of students. “I think we can now accommodate at least another three doctorate or post-doctorate students”, says Mayana.

With the laboratory reforms in place, the researchers are now working in a cleaner, airier, safer and consequently more agreeable environment, which also brought with it repercussions from the psychological point of view. “We had been living in a dark and depressing environment. Today, everything is much lighter, spirits are raised, and as a consequence production has gone up as well” says João Vasconcellos Neto, of the Department of Zoology at the Biology Institute of Unicamp. The change which brought this sensation of well being for Vera Cecília, could be summed up in the one phrase: “It was life breath.”