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Uncertainty with regard to an extraordinary feat

I was very tempted to put on the cover of Pesquisa Fapesp this month the news about the first artificial organism in the world, thus breaking one of the editorial norms of the magazine since publication started: using only themes linked to Brazilian scientific production as the cover story. The feat of the team led by famous businessman and researcher, Craig Venter, which was heralded to the whole world on May 20, made me highly enthusiastic, given the infinite possibilities that knowledge has of always surprising, fascinating and, from time to time, even profoundly revolutionizing the way we live. The enthusiasm of some of my friends, whose vision of the advance of science I have had the greatest respect for over the years, raised my own spirits. And finally, the cover of the normally sober British periodical, The Economist, supplied me with yet another powerful argument for succumbing to the temptation of the exception: there it was, not the God of Creation almost touching the man-creature with his finger, from the famous painting by Michelangelo Buonarroti on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the man-creature, a laptop on his knees, using the energy from his finger to make bacteria-creature. A fantastic, visual narrative synthesis! The title, ‘And man made life,’ followed by the explanation in the sub-headline, ‘The first artificial organism and its consequences,’ left no doubt about how  the Economist will apply its prestige to this very significant research which has resulted in the first organism controlled by an artificial genome, created by a computer.

All this enthusiasm, however, is not enough to extinguish the profound uncertainty that is undoubtedly going to last for a long time as to the true dimension, the technological, epistemological or ontological status, let’s call it, of the discovery of Venter and his colleagues. Is it, over and above the unquestionable “qualitative technological leap that certainly deserves our applause,” as Mayana Zatz says on Page 47 of this issue , something of a revolutionary nature only in media terms – Or is it much more than this – Strictly speaking, we do not know. The achievement is unquestionably important, even fantastic, but there are still doubts that need to be dispelled before I feel comfortable about choosing the exception rather than following the rule for our covers. That is why this wonderful subject is featured prominently on the cover but is not the cover story itself. It is very well explained as from Page 44 by Marcos Pivetta, our special editor responsible for the magazine’s on-line version, followed by excellent articles by three researchers; the aforementioned Mayana, who, over and above the media impact of Ventner’s feat, explores the reasons for the qualitative technological leap it represents; João Meidanis, who examines freedom of thought and imagination, the marvelous and implacable human curiosity that is present in the exceptional and maximum concentration by the North American researcher, and Marcos Buckeridge, who details why Ventner’s discovery may affect technology in the production of biofuels.

Since I have almost used up the whole of the letter space, I am going to allow myself to draw attention to just one more report, precisely the cover story that was written by journalist, Salvador Nogueira. Starting on page 16, it deals with the work of a group from USP in Ribeirão Preto that has managed to characterize the type of damage that inflammation associated with sepsis causes in cardiac cells and also to outline a promising path for protecting the heart and in this way have the body gain time to retake control of the complicated sepsis situation; in other words, basic research and applied research. Just as a reminder: in sepsis, a generalized infection caused by bacteria or a virus, the organism launches an all out desperate attack against its own cells. When the heart is the organ most affected the death rate is 80%, compared with 20% in a sepsis situation without heart damage. That is why defending the heart is a fundamental step in the fight against sepsis.

Enjoy your reading!