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Good questions

The Human Genome Project was a hot topic in science journalism at the turn of this century. Technological advances allowed an international consortium of 20 institutions to sequence and analyze the regions of human DNA that encode proteins — the project took 13 years of work and cost US$3 billion. To make the story even more interesting, a private company launched a parallel initiative, resulting in a race for the data that it was claimed would revolutionize science and medicine.

There were many hopes that never materialized. Among other issues, the small number of genomes used did not reflect the genetic diversity of our species, with implications for medicine. This led to initiatives such as the Human Pangenome Project, which now aims to completely sequence the genomes of 350 people around the world to expand the reference material. The most common diseases are linked to multiple genes, making studies even more complex. It was discovered that the parts of DNA that control gene activity are just as important as those that carry the code for proteins, accounting for the differences between organisms.

What used to take months and even years can now be done in just one day, and the amount of data available is growing at an incredible pace, presenting several challenges. Data means little if it is not analyzed through good questions. The issues faced by geneticists today are the subject of this edition’s cover story.

As the last text to be written each month, the editorial offers an overview of all the articles in an issue and draws connections between them. In most months, reading the full set of reports highlights the variety of the themes covered. And sometimes, as is the case in this issue, I am surprised by topics that I had never even thought about — the idea of treating cocaine addiction with a vaccine, for example. The strategy of triggering the immune system to tackle addiction is not new. The cocaine molecule is not big or complex enough to generate an immunological response from the human body, so to do so it needs to be associated with a macromolecule. The search for vaccines for recreational drugs has yet to produce any consistent results, but data from animal trials by UFMG researchers has motivated them to continue the quest for another tool to fight this complex public health problem.

The use of clean and renewable solar energy is on the rise. With a lifespan of 25–30 years, however, photovoltaic panels present a potential waste problem. They are primarly composed of glass and aluminum, but also contain a small amount of valuable metals and pollutants. These scrap materials require proper processing, and the presence of higher value elements is an incentive for incipient commercial recyclers.

The historical importance of English engineers in the construction of railways and bridges is well documented and well known. Less famous are the Scottish engineers and their methods, which featured in the construction of Brazilian highways from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, built to transport coffee, as described in the Memory section.

I also had a chance to learn about zooliterature, a branch of the vast world of studies on nonhuman animals. Uniting references from philosophy, biology, politics, and ecology, the field reflects on our complex and controversial relationships with animals, says researcher Maria Esther Maciel in an interview.

I hope you find it as thought-provoking a read as I did.