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In order to understand Brazilian populations

Francisco Salzano bolstered genetic research of the country’s human populations

At UFRGS, in 2006: Salzano was a big name in human genetics in the last 50 years, according to Sérgio Danilo Pena

Liane Neves

“Genetics is my life, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” admits the scientist from Rio, Francisco Mauro Salzano, last year at 89 years of age, in a documentary produced by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the institution where he had worked as a professor since 1952. Salzano gained international recognition after completing his first genetic studies of populations of Brazilian indigenous peoples, starting at the end of the 1950s. Beyond this, he had a long, prolific career collaborating with researchers in almost all areas of human and animal genetics, and who were referenced in the 385 scientific articles he wrote. In his last project, published in August, he participated in a study about genes connected to the adaptations to living in high altitudes by the Andean peoples. Still involved in various research projects, he exchanged work emails with colleagues prior to undergoing surgery for a hernia on September 26. He died the following evening, at 90 years of age.

“Salzano was a great name in human genetics in Brazil over the last 50 years,” confirms physician and geneticist Sérgio Danilo Pena, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Pena remembers that genetics in Brazil took off in the early 1940s, under the orientation of the Ukrainian-born American Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975), who was considered the father of evolutionary genetics. Dobzhansky came to Brazil with the mission of teaching researchers at the University of São Paulo (USP). Here he was supported by his first key assistant in the country, the geneticist from São Paulo, Crodowaldo Pavan (1919–2009).

Until that moment, national genetics had been restricted to the study of vegetables and invertebrates. With direction from Dobzhansky, Pavan and three other researchers initiated the first human genetics studies at USP: from Rio, Pedro Henrique Saldanha and Oswaldo Frota-Pessoa (1917–2010), and from Minas Gerais, Newton Freire-Maia (1918–2003). “They were the first generation of human genetics researchers in Brazil,” says Pena. “Salzano is the big name of the second generation, becoming known as of the end of the 1950s.”

Genetics Museum at PPGBM-UFRGS Meeting of scientists in Tainhas, Rio Grande do Sul, in 1956: Antônio Cordeiro, Salzano, Danko Brncic, L. Glock, and Dobzhansky (beginning at left)Genetics Museum at PPGBM-UFRGS

Salzano’s passion for genetics began when he was still an undergraduate student in natural history at UFRGS. At 22 years of age, he was thrilled about the work being done to create and analyze in laboratory consecutive generations of Drosophila (fruit flies), which to this day remains one of the key animal specimens of biological research. His advisor was the founder of the Department of Genetics at UFRGS, Antônio Rodrigues Cordeiro, who had recently arrived in Porto Alegre, leaving his research work at USP. Cordeiro’s contacts took Salzano to USP in 1955 to defend his doctoral thesis in genetic biology, advised by Pavan.

Expeditions to the Amazon
Between 1956 and 1957, Salzano completed a post-doctoral internship at the University of Michigan, in the United States, where he began to collaborate with North American geneticist James Neel (1915–2000), with whom he began to specialize in the study of genetic populations. Neel advised Salzano to investigate the genetics of Brazilian indigenous peoples, an area of research that had not yet been explored. Having returned to UFRGS, Salzano reached out to populations of the Kaingang group, native of the southern region, carrying out studies of blood type and proteins, which were commonly used as markers in genetic studies at that time.

In a series of expeditions to the Amazon and to central Brazil, Neel and Salzano studied the Xavante people and other indigenous groups. The data collected in these studies served as a benchmark for a general model that explained the evolution of populations of hunters and gatherers. The researchers proposed that indigenous populations tend to split into smaller populations over time, which can later merge with others with which they have no blood relationship. The constant fission and fusion of populations would explain the pattern of genetic diversity observed among the hunter-gatherer peoples in Brazil. The success of the model made Salzano known internationally for his studies on genetics of populations.

Pedro Vargas-Pinilla According to his team, the door to his office was always ajar for people to consult him; it was a trademark of the geneticistPedro Vargas-Pinilla

“All researchers who wanted to study human genetics in Brazil consulted Salzano,” says Pena. “He was very demanding, thorough, but at the same time, had the simplicity of a monk. If he found a study to be relevant, he would advise and collaborate,” he says. “After working with the native indians, Salzano collaborated on studies of other populations, such as Afro-Brazilians, and on research projects involving medical genetics, such as hereditary blood diseases.”

The researcher from Rio’s Cachoeira do Sul was born in 1928 and was also one of the key individuals responsible for the development of the Graduate Program in Genetics and Molecular Biology (PPGBM) at UFRGS. “Professor Salzano advised 41 PhD students and 48 master’s students,” confirms Maria Cátira Bortolini, coordinator of PPGBM and of the Laboratory of Human and Molecular Evolution at UFRGS, and a frequent collaborator of the geneticist.

“It was a real pleasure to speak about any subject with him, a great storyteller, from stories involving the indigenous to those related to encounters with notable scientists,” remembers Bortolini. “He made time to meet with all those who sought to speak or consult with him, always leaving his office door ajar.”

For geneticist Tábita Hünemeier, of the Institute of Biosciences at USP and also a collaborator of Salzano, his scientific career had a unique path. “He began working long before DNA analysis techniques existed. He participated in the very first anthropological studies, living with the indigenous tribes and integrating this knowledge with protein analyses from blood samples and anthropometric measurements, even with more recent genomic studies,” she confirms. “He was always a pioneer and enthusiastic about everything,” she concludes.