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Biology enters into the era of front line research

Since 1927, when it was created with the mission of controlling an invasion of the coffee borer, that devastated the São Paulo coffee plantations, the Biology Institute has made history as a center of excellence in research linked to the defense of healthy animals and plants. Here vaccines were developed against foot-and-mouth disease and Newcastle’s illness that attacks fowl. The researchers discovered sicknesses that decimate crops and their agents, such as sugarcane smut, caused by the fungus Ustilago scitaminea, and, in collaboration with French researchers, the citrus variegated chlorosis (CVC), caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa.

But not even this resplendent history of scientific accomplishments had been capable of freeing the institution from the shortage of investments in research infrastructure that would allowed it to follow the latest scientific developments. The budget, passed on by the Secretary of Agriculture, to which the institute is linked, was completely consumed by the payroll and maintenance costs. For years, laboratory renovation took second place. “Our institution had been on a descending curve” says Vera Cecília Anes Ferreira, the general director of the institution.

Behind the imposing facade of its main building, constructed during the 60’s, what one could see in the Biology Institute was the effect of time. Few things worked. A gas leak in the garden wound up in the closure of the street gas supply. The pipes were damaged and demanded an overhaul that would have consumed considerable income. The electric circuits didn’t support the load demanded by the equipment and the water pipes were rusted as well as leaky. “We lost equipment and even a water distiller because of the rust”, recalls Joana D’arc Felício de Souza, a researcher at the Natural Products Laboratory. When it rained the water leaked through the rusted window frames, ran down the walls and inundated the benches. “The windows had to be blocked up with plastic, and in order to protect the equipment from the water, they had to be placed on top of wooden packing cases” remembers Joana.

Besides being embarrassing, the situation was also dangerous. Without adequate cupboards, reagents and organic solvents were stored on shelves in the halls, without any protection. There was no safety accessories, fundamental in the case of an accident with chemical products. And worse, the fume cupboards (called Chapels in Portuguese) were broken. “They didn’t even serve for praying”, jokes Vera Cecília. Joana D’arc was one of those who suffered most with the problem. Her research line – chemical and pharmacological natural products – requires the constant use of reagents and solvents. Without an adequate exhaust system, the fumes produced by the evaporation of these products contaminated the environment. At the end of one working day she needed to be interned in hospital, diagnosed with bronchitis possibly caused by the inhalation of toxic gases.

Security is a serious question at the Biology Institute that has laboratories with security class of 2 and 3 (the second level of security on a scale of 1 – 4, 1 being of low risk and 4 of high risk), where they work with pathogens threatening to human health, such as the rabies virus and the tuberculosis bacillus, which demands a special infra-structure. “It is fundamental to treat effluent, to separate clean and dirty areas and to have a good air exhaust system”, exemplifies Vera Cecília. “Without these safety measures, it is highly risky working with zoonoses,” she says.

New life
Today, with 80% of the laboratories totally modernized, motivation has returned to the Biology Institute. FAPESP’s investment, totaling R$ 2.7 million, was sufficient to renovate not only the laboratories of the capital, but as well the other 13 units in municipalities in the interior of the State. Now enthusiastic with the new installations in her laboratory, Dr. Vera Cecília comments: “This is a Molecular Biology laboratory, but it feels like the house of a newly wed.”

Roof, floor, benches and cupboards, all were remodeled. This way the conditions were produced so that the laboratory could receive sequencing machines and participate in the Xylella Genome Project. “If today we are developing research at the forefront of scientific knowledge, it is because we had beforehand the support of the Infra”, recognizes the researcher. For her, participation in the project was fundamental not only for the physical results now obtained, but mainly for what came after. “Today we have the methodology in molecular biology to diagnose the main sicknesses in agriculture” she explains.

The work of the institute to recover the sericulture (silkworm rearing) a domestic activity in clear decline due to sanitation problems, is an example of this advance. The new molecular biology techniques can identify the pathogens that attack this culture, facilitating the sanitary control. The project has the support of the silkworm industry and of the silkworm growers.

In the General Bacteriology and Microbacteriosis Laboratory, the researcher Dr. Eliana Roxo also showed her enthusiasm with the new direction of the research. Dr. Eliana participated in a research project financed by FAPESP in the area of Research Program into Public Policies, to evaluate the potential of the transmitting of pathogenic agents in milk and its derivatives. To identify the micro bacterium responsible for the transmission of tuberculosis, her team analyzed samples taken by the State’s Animal Health Defense. The contamination of milk can occur both at its origin, that is to say a sick cow, and through the inadequate handling of the product. In other lines of research, Eliana is looking into faster methods of the diagnosis of cattle tuberculosis, which could take as much time as six months. Her goal, with these new techniques, especially molecular testing, is to reduce the identification of the bacillus to one or two days.

The plans and the prospects for the Biology Institute are so high that Vera Cecília no longer gets upset when she remembers the times when she had to visit colleagues at other institutions just to have her research material centrifuged. The sensation of dismay provoked by the lack of working conditions of Dr. Joana D’arc has also been left behind. In its place, a taste of victory and recognition for the work of almost a lifetime. “Thanks to this investment we are writing another chapter in our history.” she affirmed.