In May 1997, a pair of Brazilian scientists spent a weekend in the country discussing a bold idea. Jose Fernando Pérez, science director of the So Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), a state-funded agency and one of Brazil’s major research sponsors, was looking for game-changing research initiatives. Biologist Fernando Renach, one of his advisors, had a bold enough plan: to kick-start biotechnological research across Brazil by sequencing a genome.
To the many risk-averse scientists in the old guard, who were acutely aware of how far the country lags behind the rest of the world in biotechnology, the plan seemed overly ambitious. But the duo went on to build on the genomics and bioinformatics capability that Brazil lacked, quickly organized a team to conduct the project and then settled on a bacterium to sequence.
FAPESP invested the equivalent of US$12 million, primarily devoted to sequencers, computers and reagents, while the team worked with researchers from multiple fields to develop a comprehensive and long-lasting set of skills and knowledge. brought together and trained.
That effort paid off on 13 July 2000 when the team, involving more than 100 researchers in 35 Brazilian laboratories, published the genetic code for the citrus pathogen Xylella fastidiosa in an article featured on the cover of Nature (AJG Simpson et al. Nature. 406, 151–157; 2000). Ten years later, that project continues to bear fruit.
Before its Xylella paper even appeared, for example, the network was busy sequencing another citrus pathogen, taking its first stab at the complex genome of sugarcane and contributing to the International Human Cancer Genome Project.
Similar tools and expertise were re-packaged for sugarcane research at Brazil’s first major agricultural biotech enterprises: Allex (Xylella in reverse), which focused on genomics, and Canavialis, which made innovations in traditional sugarcane breeding. US-based biotechnology company Monsanto bought both companies in 2008 for US$290 million, and now runs its sugarcane research center in Campinas, So Paulo, where the companies were headquartered.
Brazil’s biotechnology has matured to such an extent that its scientists are players on the international stage. And FAPESP is still promoting big ideas, including a new program to channel money into a broader portfolio of bioenergy research, while the Ministry of Science and Technology builds a bioethanol research center; Both initiatives seek to build on Brazil’s leadership in this area.
FAPESP is also working to address one of the biggest barriers to progress – the lack of doctoral researchers – by encouraging scientists to fill in the gaps with young stars from the United States and Europe, according to the Brazilian Science Foundation. It is part of a wider effort to internationalize.
This is all good, but more efforts are needed in the same vein – more attitude, more risk-taking and more entrepreneurship that pushes public science into private practice, an area in which Brazil is lagging. Universities and funding agencies should continue to pursue technology-transfer programs, and the government should streamline regulations that slow down even simple activities like buying scientific equipment from abroad.
But if there’s anything holding Brazil back, it’s the same unreasonable fear of failure that the country overcame ten years ago with Xilela. Although institutions can foster, fund, and reward bold thinking, it is worth noting that Xylla was not just a brick-and-mortar research center run by a foundation, but a science project. Ultimately the task of promoting Brazilian biotechnology comes down to science, and it will be up to individual scientists to take up the challenge and expand their research horizons.
Perhaps more than anything, Xylella demonstrates the benefits of aiming high. The scientists embarked on a huge project, executed it with precision and published the results in English in a major international journal.
The results were disseminated by mainstream media outlets around the world, and Pérez believes that this singular – and unexpected – result also helped transform Brazil’s relationship of science with the Brazilian media. Xilela helped change Brazil’s perception of itself, its abilities, and its place in the world of science.