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Genome: a preliminary balance

Brazilian scientists are important players in science and in the biotechnology of Watson and Crick

José Fernando Perez

On announcing in 1997, the start of the Genome Project forXylella fastidiosa , FAPESP explicitly set out the objectives of the initiative. It was intended that at the same time as the funding the carrying out of the research project on the frontier of knowledge, with studies relevant to socio-economic problems, they would propitiate the formation of highly qualified human resources in the area of molecular genetics. The competence generated should contribute both to the advance of basic research in biology and medicine while attracting investments for the creation of a molecular biotechnology industry in the country.

Five years having passed since the start of the program, we consider it necessary, yet again, to collate established goals, results obtained and investments realized. In this context it becomes relevant to answer the question: Have these investments affected FAPESP?s capacity to finance projects in other areas of knowledge also relevant to the scientific and technological development of the country? As to the relevance and scientific quality, it is important to register that all of the projects financed through FAPESP are always previously evaluated by recognized specialists.

In this case it was by using an international scientific assessor who, emphatically and unanimously, recommended support for the initiative. However, even more relevant was the evaluation that followed with the various publications in the most prestigious scientific magazines such asNature and theAnnuals of the of the Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS)1 . The articles were published and, more than this, merited editorial highlighting in these magazines. This is the criteria of scientific excellence universally accepted and to which all development agencies conceptually adhere.

As to the social and economic importance of the projects, it is evident from the list of problems submitted: diseases in the citrus growing industry (yellowing and canker), human illnesses (schistosomiasis and leptospirosis) agricultural products of major economic importance (sugarcane and eucalyptus). Indeed, it was only last month that we registered the important conclusion of theLeptospira Genome. Partnerships with companies such as Copersucar, Ripasa, Votorantim, Duratex, Suzano, as well as Fundecitrus, attest to the interest of various sectors of the economy in the initiative.

One can as well highlight the partnership with the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute that invested US$ 10 million in the competency of the researchers within the ONSA network in tumors of the highest incidence in Brazil. As a consequence of the program, more than sixty-five laboratories in the state of São Paulo currently make use of the techniques of genetic sequencing in a routine manner in their research projects. More than four hundred and fifty researchers were trained in this methodology, essential for modern biological research.

Perhaps the most expressive indicator of success has been the recent formation of the three companies Alellyx, Scylla and Canaviallis, whose partners are leaders who have emerged from the program, and who should employ hundreds of researchers in the area of molecular genetics and bioinformatics. We are dealing with a fact that is without precedence in the economic history of the country. In the words of the very investors themselves, these occurrences are a direct consequence of FAPESP?s Genome Program.

These facts have received considerable coverage in the international press ?New York Times, Washington Post, Le Figaro, The Economist , just so sight but a few ?, that gave value to the innovative strategy of the created network. No less important was the recognition of the competence through the partnership proposed by the Department Agriculture of the United States to study the strain of theXylella bacterium that attacks the vineyards of California2 . Finally we arrive at the investment items.

Initially it must be registered that during the four years of the program never more than 5% of its development budget was directed towards genomics. This information may surprise many people due to the recognition and the space that the media has dedicated to its success. Even more relevant is the fact thatnot a single research project, whose merits had been recognized by a specialized assessor, failed to be financed during this same period. And this in spite of the fact that FAPESP over the last few years has created a series of programs that aim to articulate competency and get rid of deficiencies in the system of science and technology.

Thus the programs of Technological Innovation (giving support to more than two hundred and forty small companies in projects directed towards technological innovation); Public Policies; Public Education; Biota (involving more than five hundred researchers have created an inventory and are studying all of the biodiversity of the State, an initiative that received the Henry Ford Award as the Environmental Initiative of 1999) and the Young Researchers Program (financing more than four hundred and fifty projects and looking to give an opportunity to excellent scientists formed through the post graduate system of our universities) received expressive investments during this period, thus being possible to attend to all of the qualified demand.

Nothing is more auspicious for the commemoration of the fifty years anniversary of the structure of the DNA molecule than to see Brazilian scientists as important players in science and biotechnology who have budded from James Watson and Francis Crick.

José Fernando Perez is FAPESP?s Scientific Director and a professor at the Physics Institute of USP