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SUGARCANE

Reinforcement in the genome research

The University of Pernambuco opens a genetics laboratory

The North East, the oldest producing region of sugarcane in Brazil, has integrated itself into the national effort for the sequencing of genes specific to the sugarcane plant, which is being coordinated by FAPESP. The milestone for this new assault was the opening of the Genetics Laboratory of the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (UFRPE), on the 20th of July. Within modern installations, the scientists from the state of Pernambuco are working frantically to sequence 2,000 fragments of the sugarcane genome by the end of August, when all of the work of the 23 laboratories that are part of the Organization for the Sequencing and Analysis of Nucleotides – ONSA, will be concluded. The goal is to reach, over this period, 200,000 studied gene sequences that will turn the Brazilian project, – kicked off in July of last year – , into the largest in the world in the area of vegetal genetics.

The Minister of Science and Technology, Ronaldo Sardenberg, present at the ceremony for the inauguration of the laboratory, celebrated the recent international repercussions of the Brazilian project involving the bacterium  Xylella fastidiosa, which causes illnesses on oranges. “We’re following down the same path with sugarcane, a plant of major economic and social impact in the North East”, emphasized the Minister.

The success of the projects of sequencing of the Xylella and of the specific genes of the sugarcane, financed by FAPESP, should are likely to bring in Federal resources. In the city of Recife, Minister Sardenberg announced the intention of the Federal Government to invest R$ 240 million over the next four years, in the conservation of genetic resources through biotechnology within the country.

Functional Genome
Once the sequencing is concluded, the scientists will begin the research into the sugarcane functional genome in order to identify the functions of the various genetic fragments. For this to happen, the Support Foundation for Science and Technology of the State of Pernambuco (Facepe) is investing R$ 1 million in molecular biology laboratories. Parallel to this, they are going to search for – using data mining – data for the comparison of the sugarcane genes with similar genetic sequences that exist in international data banks. “We’ve already found in the sugarcane proteins analogous to those present in the human genome, responsible for the processes of infection”, reveals the researcher Paulo Arruda, the director of the Center of Molecular Biology of Unicamp and the coordinator of the Sugarcane Genome Project of FAPESP.

Currently 150 Brazilian scientists are participating in 12 projects of data mining. One of the possibilities for the future is to use genetics to produce sugar that does not fatten.

Since August, 37 pieces of work have been developed in different research areas of the sugarcane genome and Pernambuco is responsible for four of them. At the UFRPE, genes will be identified that relate to the fertility of the sugarcane, thus enabling the making of clones in order to avoid sterile plants in the future. Besides the recently inaugurated laboratory, which cost R$ 500,000, another three Pernambucano research centers are getting ready to participate in the project. The Institute of Research into Agronomy (IPA), a state organization, will dedicate itself to the study of the genes linked to the plant resistance to illnesses. At the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), one project will study the role of the genes in the defense against plagues and another project will identify the proteins produced by the vegetal when submitted to a situation of stress. The objective is to arrive at varieties of sugarcane that are more resistant to drought. During the last period of drought, between 1998 and 1999, the sugarcane growers of the state of Pernambuco lost up to 82% of their production.

Homologous sequences
At the Genetics Department of UFPE, ten computers linked in a network and connected to the Internet, are carrying out the work of mining for genetic sequences homologous to the sugarcane in international data banks. At the Information Technology Center, a R$ 150,000 computer was installed for the development of software and computer support tools for future projects of genetic sequencing. With a powerful memory, the machine checks the data with the complex genetic mosaics of human beings. One of the benefits will be to apply to corn, to rice and to sorghum, the results obtained with sugarcane, as they all belong to the same vegetal family.

The new laboratories are the fruit of the unprecedented partnership between the two state research support foundations – FAPESP and Facepe. The interchange – signed up last year – envisions, besides the setting up of an infrastructure of laboratories of genetic sequencing and of bioinformation technology, the training of the Pernambucano scientists in molecular biology and genetics. Forty researchers are already participating in the projects with the sugarcane.

Officially launched last April, in partnership with the Cooperative of the Producers of Sugar and Alcohol of the State of São Paulo (Copersucar), the Sugarcane Genome Project envisions the sequencing of genes, especially those linked to the metabolism of saccharose, and to the resistance of the plant to plagues and illness, and to adverse climatic and soil conditions. The method in use is the ESTs (Expressed Sequence Tags), a sequencing technology that is quick and is based only on the proportions of expressed genes that codify proteins.

The genome of the sugarcane could be as vast as that of the human being. Up until now, more than 5,000 genes have been identified, an unprecedented advance in sugarcane research. Of this total, 37% are absolutely new genes, without similarity in any other organism. The researchers suppose that these unprecedented genes could hold the key to the identification of the sugarcane in relation to other plants. These new structures could be associated with the production of important proteins. The other genes already identified have a similarity or are homologous to those already sequenced in other species. Since they are known, it will be easier to know which are really important in applied research.

Leishmania chagasi
Beginning with the knowledge produced during the genetic sequencing of the vegetal, the group from Pernambuco intends to centralize during this year a network of laboratories dedicated to research into the genome of Leishmania chagasi, the parasitic transmitter of visceral leishmaniosis. The illness is endemic to Brazil, mainly in the North East. Throughout the world, there are registered per year 2 million new cases of leishmaniosis, including the two types: visceral and cutaneous.

Dozens of genes involved in the absorption and transportation of nutrients have already been identified, and they will serve as a base for the development of varieties of the plant that are more efficient in ionic absorption. The researchers also now recognize 57 genes previously identified in other plants which make possible the fixation of carbon dioxide (CO2), the synthesis of starch and of saccharose, and the metabolism of fructose and manose, vital processes to the plant, which make it more or less interesting from the economic point of view. The research further revealed dozens of sugarcane genes similar to others, of other species, that give the plants resistance to bacteria, fungus and nematode worms.

“The worst of is that the illness typically rural is invading large cities as a result of the deterioration of the conditions of life on the periphery”, warns the biologist Luíza Martins of UFRPE. The research project is going to follow the model set up by FAPESP for the study of the sugarcane genome. From the beginning, ten North East laboratories should be participating in the network, which, at the moment, is looking for an agreement with institutions from the state of São Paulo.

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