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Reaping the benefits

Landmarks and new targets for scientific research are announced

On January 4, the government of the State of São Paulo and FAPESP announced the conclusion of the gene sequencing of the bacterium Xanthomonas citri, the cause of citrus canker, and the mapping of more than 80,000 sugarcane genes. The two projects – Genoma Xanthomonas and  Sugarcane Genome  –, enter the second phase, in which functional analysis of the genes will be done with the intention of finding a cure for citrus canker as well as solutions for improving the quality of sugarcane produced in this country.

At the ceremony held at the Palácio dos Bandeirantes (Headquarters of the government of the State of São Paulo), the landmark of 1 million gene sequences expressed in tumors, achieved by the Human Cancer Genome Project, was also celebrated. The numbers of genes is double the initial target. At the same ceremony, FAPESP’s scientific director, José Fernando Perez,  announced the launching of the Sector Consortia for Technological Innovation (ConSITec) program and the integration of the high-speed academic electronic network of São Paulo, Advanced ANSP, with the Internet 2. This connection enabled that Steve Goldenstein, from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the main research development agency in the United States, and responsible for the approval of the connection with the Internet 2, to take part in the ceremony from Washington. (see articles on pages 16/17).

“The history of Brazilian economic life has been recorded on a sui generis manner”, said governor Mário Covas. “There is always a predominant factor, sometimes for a short time: rubber in the Amazon region, and coffee in São Paulo. In fact, this view is not accurate”. According to the governor, those who associate the development of São Paulo to coffee do not realize the special significance that science and technology have always had in the State, he said, referring to the performance of FAPESP as an example of this vocation in São Paulo for producing knowledge. Along with governor also took part of  ceremony the deputy governor Geraldo Alckmin, the secretaries of Science, Technology and Economic Development, José Aníbal, Health, José da Silva Guedes, Agriculture, João Carlos de Souza Meirelles; the president of FAPESP Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, congressman Vanderlei Macris, president of the Legislative Assembly, rectors and researchers from various institutions.

Genoma Xanthomonas – Mapping the Xanthomonas citri bacterium consolidates Brazil’s leadership in the field of the genetics of agricultural pests. The bacterium, the cause of citrus canker, attacks plantations, causing annual losses of R$ 110 million to the economy in São Paulo. In 1999, for example, the disease was responsible for the reduction of  25% of the total number of boxes produced, damaging the export of orange juice and reducing the inflow of hard currency into the country. “And the lower production also reduces  employment in the countryside and in the juice extracting industry”, adds Ana Cláudia Rasera da Silva, of the Chemistry Institute of the University of São Paulo, one of the coordinators of the project, together with Jesus Ferro, of the Agrarian Veterinary Science Faculty of the São Paulo State University (Unesp), in Jaboticabal. Up to now, the only form of control known is to destroy the diseased plants, reminds Ferro.

Researchers in the ONSA (Organization for Sequencing and Analyzing Nucleotides) network, created by FAPESP, completed the genetic sequencing of the 5.175 million, nucleotides, with the support of the São Paulo Fund for the Protection Citriculture (Fundecitros), in 14 months, a record time. The experience acquired in the sequencing of the Xylella fastidiosa, the cause of Variegated Chlorosis of Citruses (CVC), the first one the team carried out, contributed to this. “In the case of Xylella, the 14 laboratories completed the sequencing of its 2.6 million nucleotides in 24 months. In the  Xanthomonas case, half the time was spent on mapping a genome twice as big as that of the Xylella”, states Ana Cláudia. In January, the Xanthomonas Project entered its second stage. “We shall carry out the functional analysis of the gene to find the cure for citrus canker”, forecasts the researcher.

Sugarcane Genome
The more than 200 researchers in the 60 laboratories involved in the Sugarcane Genome Project identified the 80,000 genes making up the sugarcane a year before the planned deadline. “Sugarcane has eight copies of each chromosome and it is difficult to handle. We identified 53,000 single genes, responsible for the plant’s resistance to pests and heat and its adaptation to the soil. This knowledge will enable the use of technology to develop more resistant and more productive plant varieties”, said Paulo Arruda, the project coordinator.

The Sugarcane Genome, the biggest project for analyzing genes expressed in plants ever done by a public institution anywhere in the world, put together for the first time, laboratories in São Paulo, Pernambuco, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Paraná, Rio Grande do Norte, Minas Gerais and Alagoas, in a task in common . “All the laboratories had access to the database and were able to study the genes identified”, points out Arruda.

The project’s second stage, beginning now, is that of applying the results of the genome. “In two years time, we may be able to announce the first plant produced as a result of the genome”.

Cancer Genome
The Human Cancer Genome Project has managed to identify, in less than a year of research; 1 million sequences of the most common tumor genes in Brazil. This figure corresponds to a third of the genetic sequences produced by public institutions all the world over and is equivalent to what the American Cancer Genome project, CGAP, has achieved in three years. The investment of US$ 10 million initially expected for financing the project sponsored by FAPESP and the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute, now adds up to US$ 20 million.

The project began in April 1999. “At the beginning, we spent months learning new technologies. In 2000, the project took off and we reached this figure six months before planned”, says Andrew Simpson, the project coordinator. “It is not the first time that governor of São Paulo has been thrilled with our accomplishments”, said Simpson to Covas. “You have done your part and we thank you profoundly for your efforts”.

The data obtained in the Human Cancer Genome Project are now beginning to be analyzed in another project, the Clinical Cancer Genome.