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Genetics’ roots in Brazil

Carlos Teixeira Mendes began teaching Mendelism in agronomy schools of São Paulo in 1910

Mendes’ classes on Mendelian genetics at ESALQ were based on his doctoral dissertation defended in 1917

ESALQ Collection Mendes’ classes on Mendelian genetics at ESALQ were based on his doctoral dissertation defended in 1917ESALQ Collection

European scientists’ rediscovery of Austrian monk Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) works on the transmission of traits in peas, in 1901, expanded the possibilities of research into what was then a new and promising field of modern biology: genetics. From that early century beginning, researchers in many parts of the world devoted themselves to studies of heredity and genetic variability in plant and animal species.  In Brazil, the ideas of Mendel began to be disseminated in the late 1910s through the teaching and research activities of São Paulo agronomist Carlos Teixeira Mendes (1888-1950), professor from the Practical School of Agriculture of Piracicaba, at the time associated with the São Paulo State Board of Agriculture.  In 1934, the school by then renamed the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, became one of the units of the emerging University of São Paulo, (ESALQ-USP).

In 1918, four years after returning from a period of studies at the National Institute of Agronomy of Grignon, France, and resuming his activities at the College of Agriculture, Mendes gave his first lectures on Mendelian genetics in agronomy and animal husbandry courses, the latter coordinated by his former student Otávio Domingues (1897-1972), who would come to be one of the promoters of Mendel’s laws in Brazil and a pioneer in research regarding the country’s genetic improvement of animals.

The former Agricultural School of Piracicaba

Piracicaba Institute of History and Geography The former Agricultural School of PiracicabaPiracicaba Institute of History and Geography

Classes on Mendelism and the new science of hybridization were based on Mendes’ dissertation, presented in 1917 as a result of his experimental research in these fields at ESALQ.  His studies enabled him to go beyond the classic examples of transmission of traits in peas to address the improvement of crops that were important for Brazilian agriculture, as confirmed by science historian Paula Arantes Habib of the University of Brasília (UnB), when analyzing the class notebooks and books bearing annotations by Mendes. “The teaching and research involving the laws of heredity at ESALQ can be seen as the beginning of the institutionalization of genetics in Brazil,” she says.

According to Habib, Mendes recognized Mendelism as a valid theory for improving plants.  Even so, he defended empirical selection as the best way of developing Brazilian agriculture.  The researcher considered this technique simpler than Mendelian hybridization, which he thought not viable for the creation and stabilization of varieties of plants suited for large-scale cultivation.  Empirical selection basically consisted of selecting and crossing the best seeds of the harvest.  It required that the selector know how to choose the best possible seeds from the standpoint of phenotype (visible characteristic) rather than the genotype (genetic composition) standpoint.  Furthermore, this technique could easily be taught to small farmers.

Nearly 10 years later, in 1928, Mendes’ work at ESALQ paved the way for genetics to begin to be employed by the Campinas Institute of Agronomy (IAC) in improving products such as coffee and corn, and in adapting other seeds such as wheat and barley to the Brazilian environment.

In Brazil, German geneticist Friedrich Brieger developed an ambitious research program in genetics

ESALQ Collection In Brazil, German geneticist Friedrich Brieger developed an ambitious research program in geneticsESALQ Collection

With the founding of USP, genetic research received fresh impetus. André Dreyfus (1897-1952), a physician who earned his degree at the School of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro, was responsible for establishing a center for genetic studies at the new university.  Under his orientation, many researchers interested in cytology and genetics came together at the Department of General Biology of USP.  Among them were Crodowaldo Pavan (1919-2009), another important member of the group who helped institutionalize genetics in Brazil (see the special report on Crodowaldo Pavan). Years later, Dreyfus would coordinate with the Rockefeller Foundation to bring Russian-born naturalized American citizen Theodosius Dobzhansky of Columbia University to Brazil to introduce the study of the genetics of drosophilae (fruit flies) to Brazil.

In 1936, in another effort towards institutionalization of research on genetics in Brazil, ESALQ invited German geneticist Friedrich Gustav Brieger (1900-1985) to set up a department of genetics at that institution.  A few years earlier, Brieger had worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany with Carl Correns, one of the scientists who rediscovered the writings of Mendel (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 239). Brieger accepted the invitation and, with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, developed an ambitious program of plant genetics and an exchange program with foreign scholars. “These scientists took part in the national scientific debate so they could contribute to the discussion, dissemination and institutionalization of genetics in Brazil,” Habib says.