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BIG: a great conference

Stories of personalities and important projects mark this international event

Guests from Europe, the United States, Africa, Latin America and Australia were the great stars of the event, but it was the Brazilians who broke the good news at the BIG Conference, acronym for Brazilian International Genome Conference, which was held between the 26th and 29th of March at the seaside resort of Angra dos Reis, in the State of Rio de Janeiro.

The project for the partial sequencing of the parasite Schistosoma mansoni, which causes schistosomiasis, was announced. Also, for the first time, it was appointed the genetic region where may be hidden the biological mechanism that allows the attack on orange trees by two different bacteria, Xylella fastidiosa and Xanthomonas citri. The BIG was organized by FAPESP, the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (CNPq), and had the support of the British magazine Nature.

With more than 500 guests and 50 speakers, the conference also introduced the National Network of Sequencing of the Brazilian Genome Project to the elite of genomics. Launched in December of last year by the CNPq, the initiative involves 25 molecular biology laboratories in the country, which are sequencing the genome of Chromobacterium violaceum, an important bacterium for the environmental, industrial and public health areas. Its genetic mapping was proposed by Dr. Tânia Beatriz Creczynscki-Pasa, of the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).

At the opening of the event, the Scientific Director of FAPESP, Dr. José Fernando Perez, announced the Schistosoma mansoni project, which will be run by laboratories of the University of São Paulo (USP), the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and through the Ludwig Institute with the support of the Butantan and Adolfo Lutz Institutes. Budgeted at US$ 850,000 and forecast to last 12 months, the project uses the Orestes methodology, developed in the Brazilian branch of the Ludwig Institute to generate information about the codifying regions (that give origin to proteins) of the genome. The goal is to produce 120,000 ESTs (expressed sequence tags) from the DNA of the parasite.

“We are going to study the stages of the life cycle of the parasite in order to try to understand its biology. Our final objective is to develop new forms of treatment or a vaccine against schistosomiasis.” said Dr. Sergio Verjovski-Almeida, of the Chemical Institute of USP, the coordinator of the project. Schistosomiasis, which causes lesions on the liver, hemorrhages and the so called water belly, affects 10 million Brazilians, mainly from the north east and central west, where it is endemic, and more than 200 million inhabitants of the tropical zones of the planet.

During the first two days, and for part of day three, the discussions revolved around the human genome. There were presentations of computational bioinformatics, the methodological apparatus, using software, involved in the assembling of the sequenced fragments of the DNA and in the search for the genes contained in the genetic code of any organism. In this area the outstanding talk was given by Dr. Walter Gilbert, of the University of Harvard, who won the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1980 for developing one of the first techniques of rapid sequencing of nucleotides (pairs of bases), the so called chemical method, used in the 70’s and the 80’s.

The speech of Dr. Gene Myers of Celera, the North American biotechnology company that produced a private version of the human genome and is the great rival of the sequencing done by the Public Consortium, attracted a lot of interest. The latter was represented by Dr. Tim Hubbard, Chief of the Analysis Group of the Human Genome at the Sanger Center, the British arm of the initiative. Then, Dr. John Quackenbush of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) of the United States, a researcher of a easygoing and humorous nature, made the audience laugh when speaking on a dry theme, the use of micro arrays in the analysis of expressive areas of the genome under certain conditions. Then Winston Hide, of the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (Sanbi) added that he was “excited to be speaking to an audience of the Southern hemisphere.”

Dr. Robert Strausberg, of the National Institute of Cancer of the USA, commented upon the genome research in his area. The Frenchman Charles Auffray, from the National Center of the Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), demonstrated the work of his institution with expressive human genes in the brain and in muscles. The Swiss Dr. Kurt Wuthrich, of the Technology Institute of Zurich (ETH), spoke on the prion, the form of protein that provokes in the human brain the sickness named Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a degenerate disturbance rare and fatal, similar to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease. “We are trying to understand the structure of this protein and to see what it does.” stated Dr. Wuthrich.

The genetics of plants occupied the second half of the third day. In the genomes of bacteria, which were left for the end, national research shone through. Besides the end of the sequencing of the bacteria Xanthomonas citri, which causes citrus canker, and of the formation of the national network for the de-codifying of the DNA of the Chromobacterium, a comparative study of the genetic material of six bacterias, presented by Dr. Marie-Anne van Sluys, of the Biosciences Institute of USP, was announced. With the possession of the general configuration of the genome of Xylella fastidiosa which attacks grapevines in California, whose sequencing by laboratories in the State of São Paulo is practically concluded, she cross-referenced this data with that of the three variations of the same bacteria, of the citric variety, of the almond tree and the oleander, and with the two types of Xanthomonas, the citri (of the orange tree) and the campestris (of other cultures).

According to the initial conclusions, there is a region of close to 25,000 pairs of bases only present in the genomes of the bacteria specializing in citrus fruit. “This region is a candidate for a more detailed study. It may contain important information for understanding how the infections occur.” stated the USP researcher. Brought to a close in this climate of excellent prospects for the national genomic program, the BIG Conference may well be repeated next year. “The event was a success.” condensed Dr. Andrew Simpson, of the Ludwig Institute and an ardent supporter of the conference.