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Letter from the editor | 242

The birth of a field

The cover story of this month’s issue captures a rare moment in the making of science: the birth of a new field.  Biologists and geologists who are studying the formation of Amazonia and the Atlantic Forest have embarked upon a type of cooperation that embraces multi-disciplinarity.  To move forward in their investigations, the two groups of scientists from very different disciplines realized that they needed more than just scarce information about the subjects outside their scope of expertise.  They needed to further investigate each other’s fields and work together from the time questions are first being considered.  The combination of specialties to study the forests has given rise to what since 2014 we have called “geogenomics” a new field of studies that include biology and geology.

One specialty alone, however, is not enough to explain the complexity of the Amazon or the Atlantic Forest.  Learning how the biodiversity of large swaths of forest was formed requires study of plant life as well as how rivers, mountains and everything that lies beneath them emerged.  Rivers are natural barriers to the movement of organisms, but they were not always found where they are today because the regions have undergone significant transformations when we account for the geological scale of millions of years.  New methods of mineral dating, for example, can change our understanding of the evolution of flora and fauna.  There are also studies where paleoclimatologists are using genomic data to test hypotheses formulated by geologists.

One significant impetus to the new field of studies has come from the collaboration between the Biota-FAPESP program and Dimensions of Biodiversity, a program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States.  Since 2012, the two agencies have supported biodiversity projects that involve gathering large groups of researchers from different specialties, thus allowing analysis of enormous amounts of information that has been collected.  Judging by the enthusiasm demonstrated by participants in the United States and in Brazil, it won’t be long before there are new findings.

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When society expresses urgency with regard to issues of public health, researchers are invariably invited to seek solutions.  Emergence of the Zika virus in Brazil and its grave consequences has mobilized a large number of scientists and medical laboratories all over the world. We can measure this by the number of scientific articles that have been published.  From 1952 to 2015, Pubmed, a database of papers in the field of biomedicine, registered some 218 studies about the virus.  At this point, just three months into 2016, there have been 307 studies.  There are as yet no solutions in sight, although just starting to get a grasp of the problem in such a short period of time already constitutes progress.  The report that begins on page 48 presents some of the studies that are beginning to demonstrate that Zika does indeed cause microcephaly.

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The interview with anthropologist Eunice Durham provides a view of universities and teaching that is unusual among academicians regardless of field. With her extensive experience as professor, researcher and manager of agencies associated with higher education, she advocates for an educational system that is at once diverse and flexible.  She claims there is limited pedagogical competence in elementary education and almost no assessments of merit because teachers are not evaluated.  Her views are worth knowing.