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The economic and social return on knowledge

Insect digestion has everything to do with agriculture and the economy

Knowledge sometimes opens unsuspected doors. This can be so even when it focuses on basic aspects of science, apparently unconnected with any practical application. But only apparently. This is the case of the broad study on the insect digestion, the subject of this issue’s cover story. A subject that we would at first suppose would be of interest only basically to a few specialists in Physiology, Entomology, Chemistry, or related fields, who spend years bent over these tiny creatures, learning, at first sight just for the pure pleasure of it, how their organism works and about the enzymes used in their digestive systems. Sheer illusion. Knowledge of the biochemical mechanisms of these insects – a class that includes around 70% of the species on earth and the most voracious and insatiable agricultural pests – was the starting point for the development of mechanisms able to interfere in the process, blocking their digestion until the insects die of starvation.

It is no small thing, nor are the results confined to purely academic work. On the contrary, they have widespread ramifications. In Brazil, each year, insects eat up on average about 11 million tons of agricultural production, including rice, beans, soybeans, corn, coffee, cotton, sugar cane, vegetables, and fruit. In the specific case of rice, out of every ten kilograms produced in the field, the pests eat almost three. For a country that needs to boost its agricultural production, both to make the food supply on the domestic market cheaper, and to produce export surpluses, this represents a considerable economic loss. But there is also another side to the question. To fight these pests, farmers use about 20 tons of insecticide on their crops every year, with serious consequences for the environment and for the food itself. Hence, the research, which did not expect to find any practical application, has a significant effect on the environment besides the economic implications. The conclusions to be reached are clear. First, there is no boundary between basic and applied research. Second, scientific knowledge lies behind all great discoveries and development.

This issue also publishes three stories on the significance and repercussions of the sequencing of the human genome and, among other things, an article on Eta Carinae, a mysterious star in the Carina constellation, which approximately every five and a half years, loses its brilliance to a degree equivalent to the shine of 60 suns in a single day. How this happens has become better understood in recent years thanks to the persistence of a Brazilian researcher who on several occasions had to convince colleagues at international institutes to point their most powerful telescopes at the star, until his ideas were proved, and thus gaining growing respect in the scientific world.

Pesquisa FAPESP also highlights, in three stories,  technological solutions that are simple but effective for companies and the economy. One of them shows that good results can be achieved through a technological innovation project undertaken in partnership. The project took a mobile laboratory to 150 micro and small businesses in the plastics industry. The laboratory was equipped with instruments for testing and undertaking experiments useful to the companies, providing huge benefits in the quality of the products. Another piece of research produced a surprising solution to the problem of cannibalism, stress and poor productivity in captivity of the matrinxã , thus making it possible to farm them. To wrap up the issue, the magazine is publishing the first of a series of three special supplements on Science and Technology seminars held under the auspices of the São Paulo 21st Century Forum, sponsored by the State Legislative Assembly.