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Brazilian scientists have sequenced the complete genome of a type of bacteria found in the Amazon that produces antibiotics and antifungicides, and might therefore help provide new treatments for diseases from cancer to Chagas disease — an infection that causes 50,000 deaths every year in Latin America.

The bacterium — Chromobacterium violaceum — is the first organism to have been sequenced as part of the Brazilian Genome Project (BRGene), which was set up at the end of last year by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

A network of 160 researchers in 25 laboratories from all over the country have been collaborating over the past nine months in order to sequence the bacteria’s genome, which will be published in mid-2002.

“This particular organism offers interesting possibilities in terms of biotechnology,” says BRGene coordinator Andrew Simpson, from the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in São Paulo, who announced the completion of sequencing last week.

For example, the bacteria produce a substance that suppresses tumours in mice, and also secrete a substance that is highly toxic to insects — which has promise as an alternative to pesticides such as DDT. Sufferers of the currently untreatable Chagas disease might also benefit, Simpson says, as C. violaceum produces a substance that is toxic to the pathogens that cause the disease.

The bacteria also produce cyanide, which can be used to extract metals in mining, and secrete a biodegradable polymer similar to plastic, which may provide an alternative to plastics derived from petrochemicals.

“This is an important venture which involved researchers from all over Brazil — from the Amazon to Uruguay — in sequencing the genome of a bacteria found in the Amazon,” Simpson says. “It shows the way in which a country like Brazil can incorporate more advanced technology to take advantage of its biodiversity.”

Next year, the Brazilian Genome Project plans to continue its work by sequencing at least one more bacterial genome.

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