Opportunities and Constraints

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As highlighted in the on-line Nature supplement Science in Latin America (www.nature.com/server-java/Propub/nature/39 8A001A0.frameset context=search), the region enjoys a unique opportunity to win a more prominent place in the world of science. In Brazil, many lines of research and development are already benefiting from the application of biotechnology tools such as marker-assisted plant and animal breeding, genomic mapping of several species, embryo transfer applied to different animal species, genetic resources characterization and conservation and transgenic products (see Box 11.1).

The same Nature review article has identified, among others, three difficulties that relate to this forum: the lack of regional integration in science, scientists' reluctant acceptance of the free market and a failure to acknowledge the importance of intellectual property rights (IPR) in modern research. Biotechnology applications are teaching new lessons and adding new challenges in all three aspects.

Recognizing IPR is a behavioural change that will come as a consequence of understanding the system. Solutions, however, must accompany this acceptance. It is already far from easy to develop transgenic products. It is extremely difficult and expensive to negotiate licence agreements. For example, nine different companies are involved in a project to commercialize a papaya cultivar that carries resistance to a virus disease. Alliances and joint projects with the international agricultural research centres (IARCs), US universities and other centres of excellence within the region could add strength to negotiations.

The integration of markets has made genetically modified (GM) seeds and GM processed food hit Brazil faster than the internal research organization could deploy them. Consumers are in a confusing situation, because they receive no warning and are advised by conflicting information in the press and on the internet. Scientists are only beginning to learn how to deal with the

Box 11.1. Transgenic plants - some examples from Brazil. Brazilian maize to produce growth hormone

Developed by the Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering Centre of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the Chemistry Institute of the University of Sao Paulo (USP), these plants are ready to produce 250 g of the hormone per ton of seeds - enough to treat hundreds of patients for months. The hormone is identical to the human form and therefore better than the bacterial source, which has one extra amino acid. It proved to be cheaper to produce and extract.

Papaya resistant to Brazilian strain of ringspot virus

Developed in collaboration with Cornell University, these plants have been tested in greenhouses in Geneva, New York, and have now been transferred to Embrapa in Brasilia for field tests. In 2 years they should be ready for large-scale tests and should be as successful as their cousins being planted in Hawaii. The technology will bring the opportunity of papaya cultivation back to small farmers in areas where the crop has been decimated by virus disease. However, if the antibiotic marker is proved to be a real problem under Brazilian conditions, then another 4-5 years will be necessary to reconstruct the material.

Common beans resistant to golden mosaic virus

Developed by Embrapa (Rice and Beans Centre), these plants are undergoing greenhouse tests after a long research period, due to the difficulty of adapting existing technology to the specific virus strain. Researchers expect to complete the cross-breeding of the characteristic into commercial lines in 2-3 years.

constant questions about the safety of their work. The fact is that, with the exception of well-known traits already tested in the USA and consumed by millions in the late 1990s (e.g. the 'Roundup-Ready' (RR)-soybean), more research is needed to clarify basic questions in different environments. Tropical agriculture is very different from the temperate fields where most products have been tested. Protocols are required for field trials, risk assessment for environmental and food safety, registration of products and public acceptance. The need is urgent, because these are constraints that will intensify as GM organisms (GMOs) become an integral part of the research agenda in the region.

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