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Letter from the editor | 211

Long-ago casualties, building for the future

In terms of visual effect, this issue’s cover looks very attractive and inviting. It reminds me of delightful old cartoons by Angelo Agostini that were published in Revista Illustrada in 1882 to satirize the Emperor Dom Pedro II’s decision to allocate funds to astronomical observation of Venus passing in front of the sun. For some of my editorial colleagues, it recalls “Hugo,” the wonderful 2011 film by Martin Scorsese that pays homage to Georges Méliès and his 14-minute feature “A Trip to the Moon” from 1902, regarded as the first science fiction film in cinema history (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 155, page 8). The motivation for this inspired illustration and the article that prompted it is a study published online by the scientific journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology on June 18, 2013. The study, by researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil, brings to light an exciting hypothesis for explaining the largest of the five mass extinctions of species on the planet in the past 500 million years. The annihilation was purportedly triggered by the indirect effects of the formation of an enormous crater 40 kilometers in diameter caused by the impact of a meteorite of about four kilometers in diameter a little over 250 million years ago, in the area that is now the site of the towns of Aragauinha and Ponte Branca in southeastern Mato Grosso State, near its border with the state of Goiás. Yes, in Brazil. But at the time, everything was Pangaea, a single supercontinent.

The collision itself would not have been powerful enough to cause the terrible destruction of 96% of the Earth’s biodiversity that marked the end of the Permian period. But, as explained by our special editor Marcos Pivetta, author of the excellent article (page 16), a series of events triggered by the impact could have caused rapid and fatal global warming. There are geological clues indicating that these events could have been caused by tsunamis. Other clues suggest that there were earthquakes of up to 9.9 on the Richter scale in a radius of a thousand kilometers around the crater. In one way or another, rocks rich in organic carbon are thought to have been fractured, releasing an enormous amount of methane, a greenhouse gas. In just a few days, according to the researchers’ calculations, 1,600 gigatons of methane could have been released, or “nearly five times more than the amount spilled out over the planet since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago,” Pivetta notes. It is well worth delving into the details of this new hypothesis about the mass extinction in the Blue Planet’s distant past.

Another highlight is the article about a research study headed by a team from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) which proposes that a deformation in protein p53 plays a fundamental role in the development of certain cancers (page 44). The abnormal folding of this protein, explains our science editor Ricardo Zorzetto, may be the mechanism that triggers not only some cancers, but also Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of mad cow disease, since the same cell mechanism is believed to be behind both events, even though it involves different proteins—prions in the latter case—and produces opposite effects in the two situations: perpetuation of cell life in cancers through uncontrolled proliferation, and premature cell death in Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. Intriguing, wouldn’t you say?

I also recommend the interview with Silvia Brandalise, founder of the Dr. Domingos A. Boldrini Children’s Center for Hematologic Research, one of her many initiatives that have helped change the cancer treatment outlook for children in Brazil (page 22). The authors of the article are Managing Editor Neldson Marcolin and Special Editor Carlos Fioravanti. In closing, I draw your attention to the Technology section article on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones—a hot industry in the Brazilian domestic market—written by reporter Rodrigo de Oliveira Andrade (page 64).

I wish you good reading! And a further note: the cover was designed by our Art Editor Mayumi Okuyama, with illustration by Sandro Castelli.