José Luis Ramírez and David Holmes argue that countries in Latin America must develop close collaboration in genomics and proteomics if they are to reap the benefits that these new disciplines offer.
Recent developments in genomics (the study of the genome sequences of living organisms) and in proteomics (the related study of the proteins that the genomes encode) promise to revolutionise several areas of economic and social activity. Among these are biotechnology, medical practice, and our efforts to understand and protect the natural environment.
The scientific community in Latin America, however, faces a serious challenge in keeping abreast of both fields. One solution must be to develop a more regional approach to the challenges presented by genomics and proteomics.
The main problem is a lack of money. Substantial investment, for example, is required to provide equipment for microarray analysis (a microarray contains thousands of genes printed on glass) or mass spectrometry, two of the key forms of equipment required in this field
This requires squeezing funds from local governments to build a facility or to buy instruments that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Buying such equipment, however, is only the first hurdle. After this comes the task of convincing granting agencies to pay for their running and upkeep. A typical individual researcher, for example, can have difficulty in finding resources to pay for DNA microarray construction, oligonucleotides (synthetic gene pieces), RNA labelling, and so on.
Scientists in Latin America and the Caribbean must accept, however, that if they do not address their own health and environmental problems, no one else is likely to do so. Large pharmaceutical companies and health systems in developed countries have little interest in solving the health and environmental problems of developing countries.
Yet in a globalised world, diseases such as AIDS and malaria cannot be left unchecked anywhere. The weakened immune systems of hungry people, combined with the easy spread of uncontrolled infectious diseases, provide fertile ground for a new problem — the facilitation (or "humanisation") of animal pathogens for which human populations lack an immune response.
On the other hand, the Latin American and Caribbean population is the result of the mixing of hundreds of Amerindian and African ethnic groups with Caucasians of mainly Spanish and Portuguese descent. One is therefore likely to find significant variations in the genetic response to diseases within this population, knowledge that may in turn lead more accurate diagnosis and prognosis of diseases, and thus eventually to custom-made drug treatment.
In addition, genome projects that address issues such as biomonitoring of the environment, biodegradation of toxic wastes and formulation of new biodegradable products will help to prevent loss of ecosystems and improve human health.
In order to address their local problems, scientists in Latin America and the Caribbean need to be able to integrate the new techniques offered by genomics and proteomics into their health and environmental protection systems. Yet when we look at scientific systems in the region, no country apart from Brazil has taken this as a priority.
Several excellent scientific groups in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela have managed to acquire instruments for high-output genome analysis technologies, and many others have access to high through-put sequencing and bioinformatics facilities, but as far as we know, no one has been able to put together a genuinely integrated system.
However, there are some promising developments. For example, researchers in Mexico announced the development of a genomic medicine programme under which they expect to apply knowledge derived from the human genome to improve health care . One research priority will be an analysis of the ethnically complex Mexican population.
In another initiative, researchers in Venezuela have proposed a systems-biology network strategy to integrate knowledge of proteomics and genomics and their application to clinical practice . If we want to have any impact on our societies we need to establish integrated systems for genomic innovation and to achieve these, various activities are required.
First, local researchers must persuade politicians to support genome projects within each country, encouraging the training, recruitment and mobilisation of researchers, and facilitating access to genetic resources and information technologies.
Second, the lack of financial resources must be compensated by a networking strategy, under which more advanced laboratories in the region train and collaborate with scientists from the less developed ones.
A third requirement is that joint capacity-building programs must be established with leading institutions abroad. Collaborative research projects must be established with these institutions, while ensuring that these meet the principles of justice and equity. Above all, we must discourage forms of collaboration in which researchers in the region become little more than "sample providers".
Finally, ethical principles need to be integrated into our practice, requiring a paradigm shift in our scientific culture and practices that allows openness and democracy to prevail.
What can we do while these requirements are being met? We can begin by sharing the limited facilities and resources that we have, not only within countries but also between them.
The broad strategy will eventually require input from administrators and politicians. But we can at least start the ball rolling at a grassroots level by setting up networks of collaboration initiated by the scientists themselves through web-based services such as LacBioNet, the Bioinformatics Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the UNU Ibero-Latin American Genome Network (under construction).
These networks will reach across the whole of Latin America. The idea is to provide a forum for scientific interchange where scientists can find information about the purchase of the best, cheapest and most reliable instruments and reagents, based upon local experience.
Individual laboratories can post web pages to identify potential collaborators. Software can be offered for exchange, and notices can be posted about the availability of reagents, such as high-throughput DNA arrays and oligonucleotides.
Through such networks, core facilities offering services can be identified on a regional basis. This will be the place to advertise seminars, web resources, classes, international training courses, opportunities for students or postdocs, jobs and funding opportunities, both national and international.
Chat rooms can stimulate discussion and allow the exchange of ideas and experience. Finally, by bringing our efforts to the attention of international scientists, funding agencies and industry, the network will help improve the visibility of Latin American genome efforts not only within the region, but also in the world at large.
José Luis Ramírez is at the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados-MCT and United Nations University Biotechnology Program for Latin American and the Caribbean, Caracas, Venezuela (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). David Holmes is at the University of Santiago and the Millennium Institute of Fundamental and Applied Biology, both in Santiago, Chile.
 Jimenez-Sanchez, G. Science 300, 295-296; 2003 Rangel-Aldao, R. Nature Biotechnol. 21, 491–492; 2003
This article is also available in Spanish