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On the road to Rio

11 January 2012

Science relations between the UK and Brazil have shifted into a higher gear in recent years. And BBSRC-funded researchers are playing a key role in encouraging collaboration and investment in UK science and innovation, particularly in food security, industrial biotechnology and bioenergy.

iStockPhoto Copyright Thinkstock 2012
Image: iStockPhoto Copyright Thinkstock 2012

Science and technology are a big priority for the Brazilian government. Public and commercial funding for research doubled between 2003 and 2008, an increase from 1.26% to 1.43% of Brazil's gross domestic product. And with further plans to increase science spend to 2% of GDP by 2020, combined with forecasts suggesting that Brazil will become the world's 4th largest economy by 2050, this Latin American giant is becoming an increasingly attractive partner for business research and innovation.

It's not a one-sided appeal either. The UK overtook France in 2008 to become Brazil's largest partner in science after the USA (ref 1). Since the successful UK-Brazil Year of Science in 2007-08, and the extension of the programme under the UK-Brazil Partnership in Science and Innovation into 2008-09, the relationship has blossomed even further.

Home from home

In 2009 EMBRAPA – the £400M agri-business and research arm of the Brazilian Government – signed a cooperation agreement with Plant Bioscience Limited (PBL), the UK technology management company, under which they will develop new technologies for Brazilian agricultural markets, and to promote and market new innovations emerging from EMBRAPA's large research network. The agreement gives EMBRAPA the right to access a group of patented technologies from PBL, which is jointly owned by BBSRC, the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory.

Agriculture is a major industry in Brazil, accounting for more than 30% of GDP. EMBRAPA provides innovative science and technology for all production regions and crop commodities in the vast and diverse Brazilian territory, with more than 40 Centres distributed across the different ecological zones.

In 2010 EMBRAPA established its first UK base at Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, building on links forged by the Rothamsted International team over the past decade.

Septoria leaf blotch in wheat, caused by the fungus Mycosphaerella graminicola. Copyright Rothamsted Research
Septoria leaf blotch in wheat, caused by the fungus Mycosphaerella graminicola.
Image: Rothamsted Research

The aim of the base is twofold: to carry out state-of-the-art research in the area of crop improvement, and to create new opportunities and links between UK and Brazilian scientists, not just within Rothamsted, but across other BBSRC Institutes and UK universities, and connecting with EMBRAPA's wider European 'Labex' network.

Based in Rothamsted's Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, EMBRAPA scientist Dr Alexandre Morais do Amaral is working with Professor John Lucas, Professor Kim Hammond-Kosack and Dr Jason Rudd to devise new approaches to prevent Septoria leaf blotch, the most important foliar disease of the wheat crop in Europe.

Brazil produces approximately five million tonnes of wheat annually (half of its national demand), and aims to become self-sufficient in the future. There is considerable potential for increased wheat production in Brazil, but the impact of pests and diseases are an important constraint.

In May 2011, leading UK wheat scientists travelled to Brazil as part of a joint EMBRAPA/BBSRC workshop to review the current range of research on wheat improvement in the two countries and to identify the most important topics for joint research and mechanisms for taking these forward. For example, the control of plant pathogens (including wheat blast fungus), the use of crop residues for biofuel production, the improvement of resource (notably nitrogen) use efficiency and the improvement of grain quality for food processing and human health.

More recently, Prof. John Lucas has flown to EMBRAPA's base in Brasilia in a reciprocal arrangement, sponsored by BBSRC and Rothamsted, to explore further opportunities for collaboration between UK and Brazilian scientists working in areas relevant to sustainable agriculture.

Exciting times

Lucas's visit is timely as negotiations are well advanced to put in place joint funding arrangements for UK-Brazil projects.

In June 2011 BBSRC and FAPESP (the São Paulo Research Foundation) announced a pump-prime partnering awards scheme, building on an existing agreement between RCUK and FAPESP to support grant proposals that involve international collaborative teams (see box Biofuel research).

In the same month BBSRC also announced new 'Brazil Partnering Awards' as part of an agreement between BBSRC and CNPq (the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) to facilitate long term collaboration between top BBSRC funded scientists and their counterparts in Brazil. Initially this will focus on priority areas identified by both parties, namely food security, bioenergy and industrial biotechnology.

"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," says Lucas.

Biofuel research: the quest for new sugar-releasing enzymes

The first BBSRC-Fapesp funded project brings together researchers from the University of York and University of Sao Paulo (USP) to identify new enzymes to disrupt lignin and release sugars from lignocellulose in cereal straw and sugar cane bagasse (the waste material from sugar production).

The digestive tract of the gribble, scourge of seafarers for centuries, is home to many enzymes that attack wood. Copyright Dr Simon Cragg and Graham Malyon, University of Plymouth
The digestive tract of the gribble, scourge of seafarers for centuries, is home to many enzymes that attack wood.
Image: Dr Simon Cragg and Graham Malyon, Institute of Marine Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, University of Portsmouth

The project builds on the strengths of the two groups in enzyme discovery and development. At the University of York, Professors Neil Bruce and Simon McQueen Mason collaborate closely on lignocellulose deconstruction and are investigators on the 'Marine Wood Borer Enzyme Discovery' programme funded as part of BBSRC's Sustainable Bioenergy Programme (BSBEC).

Working closely with Brazilian scientists in the area of biomass degradation provides the benefit of working in the context of a mature biofuels industry and its associated research infrastructure. Both teams will benefit from access to complementary skills, facilities and expertise, especially in the area of examining the impact of enzymes on lignocellulose deconstruction.

References

  1. Thomson Reuters (2009) Global research report – Brazil – research and collaboration in the new geography of science