Collaborations between Britain and Brazil are on the up. John Lucas reports.

John Lucas

It is now more than one month since I arrived in Brazil to spend a period working in Embrapa (the Brazilian Government agricultural research organisation) as part of the Labex (Laboratorio no Exterior) programme. 

For more than 10 years Embrapa have been sending scientists abroad to work in labs and organisations that they regard as of scientific and strategic importance, and a UK Labex base was established at Rothamsted Research in 2010. 

My placement is a reciprocal arrangement, sponsored by BBSRC and Rothamsted, to reinforce the partnership and further explore opportunities for collaboration between UK and Brazilian scientists working in areas relevant to sustainable agriculture, biotechnology, bioenergy and food security. For me it´s an exciting development and timely as negotiations are well advanced to put in place joint funding arrangements for UK-Brazil projects. BBSRC and CNPq (the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) have just announced their pump-prime partnering awards and a full funding initiative is expected early in 2012, and a BBSRC-FAPESP funding agreement, specific to Sao Paulo state, is already in place.

Research in action

My excitement at this opportunity is tempered by some realism about the size of the task. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world; Embrapa has 47 centres distributed throughout, and then there are the numerous Federal and State universities and institutes engaged in biological research. Networking on this scale is a daunting thought, but there are already well-established links between UK and Brazilian research groups, and now an increased momentum to build on this.

I am based in Brasilia at Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (Cenargen), a strategically good place to be, as it is central and close to Embrapa headquarters and several other sites. I have a research project working in conjunction with Patricia Messenberg and colleagues on host-pathogen interactions in Arachis (peanut) and related wild species. The disease in question is late leaf spot, caused by the fungus Cercosporidium personatum, a serious constraint on production of the crop in many countries. I am looking at the time course and extent of infection on cultivated peanut genotypes, as well as some wild relatives with resistance to the disease, together with transcriptome analysis to identify host genes expressed in response to infection.

It’s a new system for me, but relevant to my UK interests in diseases of wheat, as we are also using genetic and genomic approaches to study infection and host defense. It is good to be back in a lab coat again, although I have some catching up to do in terms of hands-on molecular biology. There is a healthy buzz around the place, with a large population of research students from the local University of Brasilia (UnB) and Catholic University. I already gave a seminar at UnB based on recent work in the pathogenomics group at Rothamsted and further talks, workshops and discussions are planned.

Last week Cenargen marked its 37th anniversary with a celebration and special award for two of its staff, Francisco Aragão and Josias Faria for their achievement in producing transgenic (GM) beans resistant to golden mosaic virus, a severe disease throughout the tropical region of the Americas, that impacts in particular on small-holder farmers. The GM beans, that utilize RNAi technology to control the virus, were cleared for field use in September. The refreshments included a stew made from the transgenic beans; I wondered how this might go down back home in my local branch of Waitrose?

Heading down to Rio

Two weeks ago I travelled south and east on a scoping trip to five other Embrapa centres. This was a whirlwind tour through Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Rio do Janeiro. The centres visited covered wheat research, swine and poultry, grapes and other fruit, soils, and agrobiology; one being where much of the work on nitrogen fixation by rhizosphere bacteria was pioneered by Johanna Dobereiner and colleagues in the 50s and 60s.

Fortunately I was accompanied by Alexandre Amaral, the UK Labex representative who has the contacts, as well as the language skills, to smooth such an expedition.

What struck us most about these centres was not just the range of research being done, but also the high proportion of new, young researchers starting programmes, and the investment in infrastructure, new buildings, and kit. But seeing as agriculture now accounts for up to 30% of Brazil’s GDP it’s not surprisingly an area high on the government agenda.

Space does not permit me here to comment on my daily life in this fascinating country, although I did wonder about the attractions of working at Embrapa Soils, sited in the luxuriant Botanic Gardens in Rio, at the foot of the spectacular Corcovado, and close to the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

One is almost tempted to write a song about it.

About John Lucas

Professor John Lucas is Head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Rothamsted Research. He works on plant pathogenic fungi and infection processes on host plants. He is also interested in mechanisms of pathogen variation and evolution in response to changes in host populations and use of fungicides. He is currently working in Brazil as part of the Embrapa Labex programme with the UK, supported by BBSRC and Rothamsted.

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