The campus of São Paulo State University (Unesp), located 180 kilometers from São Paulo in the city of Rio Claro, has become a global leader in biodiversity research. Working in collaboration with top-level international researchers, the institution’s biologists, zoologists, and ecologists have produced studies on topics like the diversity of Brazilian amphibians, the effects of the impoverishment of fauna on the health of tropical forests, and the search for antidotes to bee and wasp venom, published in high-impact science journals. “In the 1950s, we began with pioneering studies on social insects and surveys of fauna and flora, and then we managed to diversify our interests and assemble groups that work on the cutting edges of knowledge,” says Claudio J. Von Zuben, current director of the Unesp Institute of Biosciences (IB) in Rio Claro, home to these lines of research and over 100 faculty members.
The career path of biologist Mauro Galetti, professor with the IB Department of Ecology, captures something of the evolution of research at Rio Claro. Since his undergraduate days in the late 1980s, Galetti has devoted himself to investigating interactions between plants and animals. As author of more than 150 papers published in indexed journals, he is studying how the decline in animal populations caused by human hand can impact forests just as seriously as deforestation, because it interferes with the scattering of seeds and with pollination. Over the past eight years, he has published articles on these interactions in the journal Science, in partnership with scientists from other countries. The first of these articles, released in 2008, explored the consequences of the extinction of large animals known as megafauna. “We did a review of the largest vertebrates that have gone extinct on oceanic islands and found that the extinction of megafauna is ongoing and even affects animals that aren’t so very big but are the biggest in a given ecosystem,” says the researcher. “In other words, humans are steadily eliminating the largest vertebrate species available.”
“Another article, published in 2013, is practically a history of my research,” Galetti explains. In this paper, he and his colleagues and students showed that the extinction of large fruit-eating animals prompts an evolutionary change in the size of the seeds of the jussara palm (Euterpe edulis). “We studied who feeds off the fruit of this palm tree, whether or not the seeds germinate, and the size of each bird that scatters them, and we noticed that the seeds are smaller where large dispersers have gone extinct,” says Galetti, who began analyzing data while on an 18-month sabbatical fellowship at Stanford University from 2007 to 2009, with funding from FAPESP and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). “The fellowship was a turning point in my career. There, I had contact with state-of-the-art laboratories and the world’s leading researchers in ecology, climate change, and ecosystem services. When I came back to Brazil, we set up a variety of projects with Unesp student researchers at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels in order to fill in gaps and round out the research,” Galetti says. “We possess all the creativity and skills needed to do cutting-edge science,” the researcher adds.
Holding a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in ecology from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), Galetti completed his doctorate at the University of Cambridge in Britain. He came to Unesp in 1997 as a beneficiary of FAPESP’s Young Investigators in Emerging Institutions program. “The Foundation had just established the program and I was one of the first to join it. I was doing post-doctoral work in Indonesia through the University of Cambridge, but I came back to put a research group together, along with Professor Patrícia Morellato,” he says. He set up a laboratory on animal-plant interactions at the Department of Botany and in 1998 applied for a professorship with the Department of Ecology, where he still works today.
Research at the IB dates back to the 1950s, when the state government founded the Rio Claro School of Philosophy, Science, and Languages and Literature/Unesp, which offered Natural History, among other courses. Because the researchers who were hired to teach there were interested in the study of insects that organize into societies – like bees, ants, wasps, and termites – the IB was soon a leading institute on the topic. It was in Rio Claro in 1956 that specimens of the bee species Apis mellifera scutellata, brought from Africa by Professor Warwick Kerr, famously escaped from a restricted area of a forest reserve and spread across the country. This aggressive species produces abundant amounts of honey and adapted very well to Brazil. More than 50 years later, in 2010, researchers from the Center for the Study of Social Insects (CEIS), which is part of the IB, registered the first patent on a serum that can neutralize the effects of A. mellifera scutellata venom, under a study launched in 2000 in partnership with both the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Butantan Institute (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 153). The serum is not yet on the market but the Butantan Institute is getting ready to start production.
“Through his investigations into bees, Professor Kerr’s influence expanded into other social insects, like ants, termites, and wasps, later coming to include the field of biochemistry in the study of venom,” says Mario Sergio Palma, coordinator of the CEIS Laboratory of Structural Biology and Animal Chemistry and one of those responsible for development of the serum that counteracts bee venom. Palma, who has been a professor at the IB since the mid-1970s, started out working with the biochemistry of wasp venom and witnessed the growth of research at the Institute. “I began at Unesp 38 years ago, working in a small, six-square-meter kitchen.” Today, the facility’s infrastructure encompasses seven laboratories (on urban ants, leafcutter ants, bees, termites, microbiology, animal chemistry, and molecular evolution) and has over 1,300 square meters of floor space. “We have one of the finest laboratories for protein spectroscopy in Latin America, focused on researching bees, ants, and wasps,” says Palma. “We work with 70 students who conduct research at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels, relying very little on the university’s human resources – we have only four staff members. We take care of maintenance ourselves, and the groups that are successful in getting their research project approved will temporarily help out those who lack funding.”
The institution’s interests broadened over time. In 1976, the School of Philosophy, Science, and Languages and Literature was broken into two units, which became part of Unesp: the Institute of Geosciences and Exact Sciences and the Institute of Biosciences. That year, the IB established Brazil’s first undergraduate course in ecology. Today it also offers courses in the biological sciences, physical education, and pedagogy and has seven graduate programs. Galetti recalls that when they had the opportunity to hire professors for the Department of Ecology in 2008, they discussed what the future lines of research would be in this field. “We managed to hire skilled people in fields like climate change, molecular ecology, and landscape ecology, who were essential to putting a new face on our graduate program,” he says.
In the opinion of Célio Haddad, Department of Zoology professor, the growth of research at the IB can also be traced to the strategy of attracting researchers from other institutions as a way of investing in lines where the Institute had no expertise. “Academic inbreeding is somewhat common at Brazilian universities and in the past a lot of folks who studied at the institute stayed on here. But a number of departments managed to reinvent themselves by attracting young researchers with strong résumés, and this had an impact on both scientific production and the ability to source research funding,” he says.
Haddad came to Rio Claro from Unicamp in the late 1980s. His mission was to work with amphibians, still an unexplored area of investigation at the IB. “I formed a research group at the Department of Zoology in 1988. It was really hard at first. I didn’t have my PhD yet and it was tough to find funding,” he remembers. From 1996 to 2000, Haddad was a beneficiary of the Young Investigators program, which enabled him to purchase equipment and improve conditions for conducting scientific investigations. The main focus of his research is Anura, the animal order that includes frogs and toads; he has published over 280 papers on their taxonomy and behavior in indexed journals. His scientific collection, which is the third largest in Brazil, holds some 30,000 specimens and 700 species of amphibians. He has described over 50 species of frogs and toads, in addition to genera and families of these animals. In 1997, he spent a year doing post-doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 2013 he did a sabbatical fellowship at Cornell University, funded on both occasions by FAPESP. During this time abroad, he got to know foreign researchers who now form part of his network of collaborators. He maintains longstanding partnerships with colleagues at Cornell and universities in New York City and also collaborates with researchers from Argentinean and German institutions. At his laboratory, he often receives doctoral candidates and post-doctorate fellows from different countries who are interested in studying Brazil’s rich fauna (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 179).
In 2006, Haddad took part in a worldwide initiative that changed the classification of amphibians: the Amphibian Tree of Life, published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in 2006. He has led joint thematic projects aimed at describing the diversity of Brazilian amphibians. Lately, he has been exploring a new approach, known as environmental DNA, which endeavors to establish whether some specimens of species now considered extinct might be hidden in nature. In an effort to find traces of genetic material from these species, water samples are collected from streams where the species have disappeared and are then purified and sent to France. “If we find genetic material from species that have disappeared, this might mean that they still exist at low densities and that we are not managing to find them,” he says.
Some years ago, infrastructural improvements gave a boost to production by IB-Unesp researchers. Between 2009 and 2014, new buildings were erected for some of the Institute’s departments, and this is pointed to as a watershed in the ability to produce research. “Each professor has his or her own office, with laboratories attached. And there are shared laboratories for molecular ecology, computer science, and landscape ecology,” says Galetti. “This is vital, because we have a lot of students in ecology and biology, and their creativity was being hampered by the modest size of the laboratories.” Now every professor works with a number of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral candidates, and there is room for everyone.
This is the second in a series of reports on the 40-year history of São Paulo State University – UnespRepublish