Brazilian biochemist Sandro de Souza, 32, ha landed a dream job at Harvard University. His boss was physicist and Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert, practically a deity in the world of DNA sequencing. Then the phone rang. A friend asked Souza to join a new genome research project - in Brazil, of all places. To his surprise, Souza took a deep breath and accepted. "I wondered what would become of me," he recalls.
That was two whole years ago, before Brazil, a backwater of genetic research, metamorphosed into an international powerhouse. Last month researchers at Sao Paulo's Fapesp research institute announced that they had cracked the DNA code of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial pest that destroys a third of Brazil's orange crop each year. It is the first time scientists had ever mapped the structure of the genome of a plant pathogen - a "landmark achievement," as the British journal Nature put it.
As if that weren't enough, a week later Souza's own group announced that it had successfully mapped the structure of some 500,000 human expressed-sequence tags (EST) in malignant tumors. ESTs are tiny bits of DNA that scientists use to piece together the far longer sequence of base pairs that make up a gene. The more ESTs you know for a particular tumor, the better your chance of being able to decode the entire structure of its genome and eventually to find a cure. Only the United States and Britain have identified more human ESTS. Ali of a sudden, Souza and his fellow Brazilians are sitting pretty at the top of an important field of research. "This is the leading edge," said Richard Klausner, president of the National Cancer Institute, who works closely with the Brazilians. "The Brazilian team has shown that emerging nations can participate as equals in cutting-edge research."
How did Brazil pull off such a feat? Slowly at first, then all at once. The slow part was Fapesp's rise to the research big leagues. Fapesp takes a 1 percent share of Sao Paulo's state tax revenues, which has allowed the 50-year-old institute to nourish a fat endowment and fund quality research into everything from airplane dynamics to weather prediction. Thanks largely to Fapesp' Brazil's contribution to scientific research has risen threefold in 15 years. Brazil now publishes 1.2percent of the world's scientific papers-more than the rest of Latin America combined.
Fapesp leaders also made a conscious decision three years ago to bootstrap Brazil's genome research, which had been fragmented among dozens of laboratories throughout the sprawling state of So Paulo, which is half the size of France. Resisting the temptation to build a lavish new facility, they instead created a "virtual institute" of experts in 35 laboratories scattered throughout So Paulo. The five or six labs that had experience in DNA research trained the others.
Still, Fapesp delivered the Xylella project two months ahead of schedule and $2 million under its $ 1 5 million budget. "Did 1 think all this was going to work out?" shrugs Jose Fernando Perez, Fapesp's scientific director. "It was a leap in the dark."
Leap indeed. The 192 researchers who participated in the two projects are now national heroes. Brazil's president feted them, draped them with medals and threw them chandelier soirees. The governor of Sao Paulo created an award in their honor. Newspapers and television shows are brimming with the arcana of genetic research. "This was a tremendous boost to national pride," says British-born scientist Andrew Simpson, who coordinated the entire genome effort and has adopted Brazil as Us home. "It felt like winning the World Cup."
Once the partying dies down, the scientists face a tough slog turning their cracked genetic codes into useful cures. The potential benefits, however, are huge. Brazil's citrus growers lose $ 100 million a year to xylella. The human-cancer project could likewise have a big impact on head, neck and stomach cancers, which hit poor nations especially hard. The groups believe it may be a year and a half away from producing a full genetic map of the breast-cancer tumor. Such a map could lead to better diagnostic tools and new drugs to fight the disease.
Mean while, new projects are in the offing. The virtual institute, now 62 laboratories strong, is deciphering genomes of sugar cane, a citrus chancre and several human cancers. The Ludwig Institute, a Swiss cancer foundation, recently kicked in $5 million, doubling the institute's cancer budget. The U.S.Agriculture Department has also enlisted Fapesp to do research into xylella, which also plagues California grapevines.
Each day Simpson and Souza field dozens of queries from scientists around the world, many of them Brazilians studying abroad. "They keep asking me, "Hey what's going on?" says Souza, to whom Harvard is now a fond memory. "The important thing for a scientist is to be doing exciting work. "Better still if it happens to be in your native country.