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Biologists celebrate the excellent working conditions

Research increases in traditional and front line research

After some forty years, the building of the Botany Department of the Biosciences Institute of USP, one of the oldest on the University City, was showing the marks of time and signs of abandon. Among the variables with which the researchers came up against, were the lack of water and an inoperative electrical system. The laboratories flooded after heavy rain, which was also a threat to the equipment. Without a budget for reforms, the solution was to improvise. “When a laboratory was without water, we rigged up a pipe from outside”, relates Gilberto Barbante Kerbauy, the deputy director of the Institute. Old and rusty, the pipes were clogged; the electrical circuit was full of repairs and wires were running from one room to another. “To switch on a piece of equipment, we had to switch off another.” The lack of space was another handicap. For example, the Molecular Biology personnel shared the laboratory with the team from the Vegetal Physiology. “The benches were occupied by teachers, post-graduates, and trainees, sometimes simultaneously” recalls Kerbauy. In the halls, lockers, refrigerators and freezers blocked circulation. All of these factors limited the volume and the quality of the research.

“Even with capable personnel, there was a lack of infrastructure to develop research to the desired level of quality”, evaluates the researcher. The solution began to be solved in the mid-90s with the construction by the university of a new building to house the under-graduates, thus liberating space for the researchers. The Infrastructure Program arrived at that very moment and for Kerbauy, it was a fortunate coincidence. “With the money that we received, we could expand and modernize all of the laboratories. It was a twenty year old dream come true.”

The resources were invested in the expansion and renovation of laboratories. Four greenhouses were equipped with heating and humidity systems and three nurseries were built for tropical plants with stable temperature and humidity controls appropriate for Amazon species currently under threat of extinction.

As well, in the Botany Department, the Infrastructure Program allowed the researcher Dr. Marie-Anne Van Sluys to set up a Molecular Biology laboratory. After being fitted out, this laboratory was the first in the State of São Paulo to have an automatic sequencing machine installed. The laboratory participated in the Xylella Genome and the Xanthomonas citri Genome projects, and took part in the Agronomy and Environment Genome projects, which carried out the genetic sequencing of Leifsonia xili and of two other varieties of Xylella.

In total, the Biosciences Institute of USP received from the Infrastructure Program for the renovation of its laboratories, close to R$ 4.2 million, which benefited the research of other departments, such as those of Biology, Physiology, Zoology and General Ecology, as well as the important support center for marine studies, the Marine Biology Center (CEBIMar).

A laboratory by the sea
Inaugurated in 1954, the CEBIMar was built on the coast at São Sebastião before the highway SP-55 was built, which is the São Paulo part of the federal highway Rio-Santos. Modest, even after the reforms and adaptations carried out over the years, the main laboratory of the center was subject to the corrosive effects of high tides and of penetrating salty humidity. It was necessary to demolish it and completely rebuild it .

The new laboratory has been built atop concrete pillars which avoids contact with soil humidity, makes ventilation easier and also the maintenance of the water and electrical installations, now conveniently fixed beneath the ceiling. In the internal area, air conditioning and a de-humidifier help to preserve the equipment such as magnifying glasses and microscopes, sensitive to the action of fungi. To deal with marine organisms, the researchers can today count upon piped running sea water. The sinks of the laboratory have two taps, one with fresh water and the other with salty water, fundamental for maintaining the marine organisms alive and healthy.

The revitalization of the CEBIMar, was made possible through the resources of the Infrastructure Program which liberated nearly R$ 1,1 million to the center, which ended up benefiting researchers from other institutions such as Unicamp and Unesp who are taking part in the Biota program, studying marine organisms. “Without a laboratory by the sea they would not have had the conditions to keep alive the researched organisms which would then damaging the results of their studies” says Álvares Esteves Migotto, a researcher at the center and responsible, within the Biota program, for the census of cnidarians, a group which includes jelly-fish and corrals. Also at the center they are developing applied research into bioactive substances and the monitoring of marine pollution, among other tasks. Its quarters are occupied by under-graduate and post-graduate lectures, university extension courses and symposiums.

The meteorology and oceanography stations complete the activities that are being developed on the site. At 10 minute intervals the equipment registers the temperature of the air, the temperature and salinity of the sea water, the direction and velocity of the current as well as the sea level and the transparency of the water. “These are important pieces of information for ecology research, which needs a constant monitoring of the environmental variations” explains Migotto. Before, this data was hand written twice a day.

An ancient dream
Expanding and renovating the building of the Zoology Department of the Biology Institute of Unicamp was also an ancient dream of its researchers. The department had been installed in a precarious manner in a large shed of metallic structure and was no longer able to hold the close to 200 professors, workers, students and trainees.

There was dampness caused by water leaks and the sewage and electrical wiring was badly damaged and the latter presented a constant fire risk. The laboratories didn’t offer the minimum conditions of asepsis. In the view of João Vasconcellos Neto, a professor at the Animal and Plant laboratory, the quantity of dust and contaminating substances was alarming and imperiled his research, which is linked to the biological control of agricultural pests. The work went well in the field, but fell down in the laboratory. The resources of the Infra destined to the Biology Institute of Unicamp totaled close to R$ 3.4 million, and were invested in the adaptation of 70 laboratories of diverse departments, which permitted a new rhythm to the research.

Vasconcellos Neto now has new research plans. “In zoology there are still entire groups that are totally unknown. We have a lot of work ahead of us.” Another person who is also very enthusiastic with her new installations and working conditions is the researcher Fosca Pedini Pereira Leite. The Marine biology laboratory in which she works is the headquarters of the coordination of the Biota Program for the area of marine organisms. Every month they make a collection in three areas of the north coast of the State of São Paulo. The material collected on the sand and in the rocky pools is taken to Campinas where the selection, cataloguing and classifications are done. “This would be impossible without the new space and adequate benches.”

Daring more
The only transmission electron microscope of the Electronic Microscope Center at the Biology Institute of Unicamp had been in activity for some thirty years. The original capacity of the magnification was 60,000 times and had been reduced through use to 10,000 times. “This rate is very low for those who deal with cellular biology, which needs to have a magnification of at the minimum 50,000 times”, explains Mary Anne Heidi Dolder, the director of the center. The alternative for the researchers was to use microscopes belonging to other institutions as they did at the Agriculture College Luiz de Queiroz of USP in Piracicaba. “Unicamp has other microscopes available, but it is rare to find a break in the time that they are in use,” comments Mary Anne.

The only thing left from the old center is the structure of the new building. Inside, everything was renovated: the electrical installations that wouldn’t support the load of the new equipment, even the walls, the floor and the benches. It was also necessary to install air conditioning in order to guarantee the necessary temperature for the functioning of the new transmission and scanning electron microscopes. Also, two rooms were equipped for the preparation of the material to be analyzed.

The center now carries out analyses for the researchers of various departments and is sought mainly by those studying cellular biology, histology and anatomy, as well as microbiology, zoology and botany. “Today we are equipped to the level of the best laboratories and we attend researchers from various parts of the country that don’t have the same resources in their cities” says Mary Anne. For the researcher Áureo Tatsumi Yamada, the ex-director, the restoration of the center was more than just attending to a suppressed demand. “When the researcher has this equipment at his disposal, he can venture more in his research projects” he explains.

Jeopardized research
Another department at the Biology Institute of Unicamp that benefited from the resources of the Infra-Structure Program was that of Immunology. Its researchers realized that the lack of conditions for their two research animal breeding units were jeopardizing their research. A study, coordinated by the researcher Liana Verinaud, demonstrated that the animals maintained inside were exposed to contamination that interfered with the test responses with specific pathogens. “We were observing serious alterations in the research results: they could not be repeated correctly and from one moment to the next we would end up with unexpected data” says Liana, who confirmed her suspicions on detecting a virus that interfered in the tests being done on Chagas’s disease.

It was necessary to isolate common circulation areas from those in which the animals are maintained and submitted to experiments. The circulation of the air began to be controlled through filters and an exhaust system was installed to disperse the odors. The temperature began to be stable and all of the material that enters into contact with the guinea pigs is now sterilized. “We reduced by almost 100% the level of contamination, which gives us a much greater degree of certainty in relation to the results”, say Liana. It is not difficult to imagine the importance of this change. Besides Chagas’s disease – research developed in jointly with the Pasteur Institute of Paris – the studies developed within the center are looking for answers to many question that still exist about inflammation, fungi infections, and the development of tumors.