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Noah’s Scriveners: The Challenges of Tracking Brazil’s 1.8 Million Species

Publicado em 04 março 2012

Por Alexandre Gonçalves

Approximately one-fifth of the world’s species live in Brazil. It is unquestionably the country with the greatest biological diversity, which is distributed in a mosaic of biomes ranging from the arid Caatinga to the exuberant Amazon rainforest. The zoologist Thomas Lewinsohn of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) estimates that, of the 1.8 million species in Brazil, only about 210,000 have been identified by scientists so far. Researchers agree that identifying every species in such a biologically diverse country is nearly impossible, but there is consensus on the importance of identifying as many as possible before many of them become extinct. Halting this irreversible process seems like a race against time. The Atlantic forest, for example, one of the most biodiverse biomes in Brazil, now occupies less than 8 percent of its original area.

In the effort to reveal Brazil’s biodiversity, no initiative has been as successful as the Biota-Fapesp Program. Funded by São Paulo Research foundation (known by its Portuguese acronym Fapesp), one of the leading public agencies in promoting the sciences, the program researches the biological diversity of the state of São Paulo. The state is located in a point of transition between two biomes – the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado – which have an enormous wealth of ecosystems. It is, however, the state with the highest rates of urbanization and industrialization, with all of the attendant environmental consequences.

Created in 1999, the Biota-Fapesp Program is organized as a virtual institute that brings together about 200 researchers and 500 graduate students spread across 16 education and research institutions, in addition to 50 collaborators from other Brazilian states and about 80 from abroad. Last year, during a meeting in Washington DC, the Fapesp and the US-based National Science Foundation expressed interest in carrying out joint projects within the Biota-Fapesp and Dimensions of Biodiversity, the US equivalent of the Brazilian program. In January, the cooperation was formally initiated via a call for proposals that offers up to $4 million USD for every group of Brazilian and American scientists that want to work together to research biodiversity.

In the first ten years of the project, the Fapesp invested about $42 million USD. In 2010, the foundation renewed its support to the program for more than a decade, guaranteeing investments until 2020. “The Biota-Fapesp became the first Brazilian scientific program to have regular investment for more than ten consecutive years,” said the botanist Carlos Alfredo Joly, the coordinator of the initiative and a researcher at UNICAMP. Joly followed in the footsteps of his father, Aylthon Brandão Joly, a renowned researcher of Brazil’s biodiversity. In the 1950s, the algologist conducted the first systematic studies on algae in the country.

By any measure, the project has been a success. The Biota-Fapesp has already identified 1,766 new species, the majority of which are micro-organisms (about 64 percent). But the discoveries also include 93 vertebrates and 564 invertebrates. The project has also improved scientists’ knowledge of previously known animals and plants. For example, an article published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) describes the existence of “bee-soldiers” that are physically adapted to defend the hives of jataí bees. They are small stinger-less bees which produce a type of honey that is popular across the country. Among ants and termites, the existence of specialized castes that have physically evolved to serve a particular function is well known and often written about in the scientific literature. But among bees, the scientific consensus was that only the queen bee was shaped differently from other bees. The PNAS article was only a recent example of the program’s success – roughly 1,100 published articles have come out of the project.

And the results have not been only academic. Six government acts and 13 resolutions cite the program guidelines. Biologist Ricardo Ribeiro Rodrigues, of the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (Esalq-USP) studies the forests of São Paulo in Biota-FAPESP. He is trying to develop methods for the conservation of the preserved vegetation and the restoration of degraded forests.

Rodrigues noted the impact of the Guidelines for the Conservation and Restoration of Biodiversity in the State of São Paulo, a book published in 2008 based on the program’s research. “We suggested the creation of 25 conservation areas in the state,” recalls the biologist. “Fifteen have already been created.” The study also highlighted specific areas that need to have their original vegetation reconstituted due to their ecological importance. “The map is being used today by the state government to determine which regions companies should reforest in order to compensate for the damage done to nature.”

The program scientists have also sought to show the economic value of the program, so, in 2003, they created the Biota Network of Bioprospecting and BioAssays, or Bioprospecta. The network’s objective is to find molecules with industrial applications in the organisms studied within the Biota-Fapesp program.

Vanderlan Bolzani, a chemist at the State University of São Paulo (Unesp), coordinates the initiative and speaks excitedly about the research. In the leaves of a Brazilian plant called cássia-do-nordeste, dor example, Vanderlan’s team found a possible acetilcolinesterase inhibitor. The substance is promising for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. “Recently we noticed that the clusters of yellow flowers on the cássia-do-nordeste contain an even greater quantity of this substance: out of 1 kilo of flowers, we can extract 5 grams,” she explains. Vanderlan sees nature as a giant laboratory: besides offering an immeasurable amount of substances, it also offers great ideas on the best methods to synthesize them in a laboratory.

Two years ago the federal government decided to launch an initiative similar to the Biota-Fapesp program, but nationwide. In partnership with foundations supporting research in each state, it created the National System of Biodiversity Research (Sisbiota-Brasil), modeling it on São Paulo’s program and relying on the coordination experience of researchers such as Joly and Vanderlan. The first call for proposals of the program, released in 2010, offered $30 million to be spent in three years. The results will be available in the next decade.