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Between possible futures and the distant past

As I pondered as to what would be the subject of the cover for this issue of Pesquisa FAPESP, I wavered somewhat between possibilities of the future and the distant past. We were treated to a rather exciting glimpse of the future in early October when a Palio Weekend Adventure vehicle owned by USP motored along without a driver for 5.5 kilometers on the streets of São Carlos in São Paulo State. The trip, witnessed by photographer Léo Ramos and our video production team, prompted the article written by our technology editor, Marcos de Oliveira, which appears on page 58. It is worth noting that the experiment in São Paulo parallels other experiments already conducted by major companies like Mercedes, Volkswagen and Google, and by university institutions such as the Fraunhofer Institute. As we again emphasize the crucial importance of reproducing experiments for the sake of creating an important body of knowledge, it appears as if the trip taken by the autonomous car in São Carlos did just that.

Traces of the past from more than 15,000 years ago have come to us by way of the recent reclassification of a species that includes the nearly complete fossil skeleton discovered in a cave in Campo Formoso, Bahia, in 1992 (captured by photographer Adriano Gambarini). It is not a Protopithecus brasiliensis, as scientists had thought until that point, but a legitimate Cartelles coimbrafilhoi, now duly recognized as the largest monkey ever to live in the Americas. It is the subject of the report from our colleague Igor Zolnerkevic. After objectively weighing several aspects of the importance of the two research projects—the innovative work that points to the future of the automobile and the basic paleontological work focused on an extinct primate from the Pleistocene—and having exercised that modicum of arbitrariness that an editor’s work always permits, I settled on the monkey as the final choice for the cover subject, beginning on page 16, for its ostensibly critical importance in reconstructing the evolutionary history of simians in this part of the planet.

We should point out that the new scientific name of the animal in question pays homage to paleontologist Cástor Cartelle, who currently conducts research at the Pontifical Catholic University in Minas Gerais (PUC-Minas). Cartelle is responsible for the discovery of the fossil in Toca da Boa Vista, considered to be the largest cave in the Southern Hemisphere. The renaming of this primate of the Americas fell to paleontologists Lauren Halenar and Alfred Rosenberger, both from the City University of New York, in the wake of their thorough analysis of the skeleton and comparisons with other similar fossils from South America.

Also in the Science section, I call to your attention the report by our science editor, Ricardo Zorzetto, about the elastic properties of the cell membrane, which vary according to the type of cell it encloses and the function it performs, as discussed in the article beginning on page 50. We now know that this membrane, which looks so fragile under a microscope, is much more than simple packaging enclosing the cell’s contents. The research group led by physicist Herch Moysés Nussenzveig, working with brain cells, blood cells and the cells of other tissue, used an instrument known as optical tweezers to determine that different types of cells have membranes with different elastic properties.

And finally, I want to highlight the article by special editor Carlos Fioravanti about the seemingly paradoxical work of ecologists who, equipped with chain saws and drills, cut into the trunks of large trees in the forest. No, it’s not a fatal identity crisis; they actually collect samples from trees to study changes in moisture and temperature over the centuries.