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jan 17, 2018

Brazil’s biodiversity is reinventing the biotech industry

Brazil is one of the planet’s most biodiverse countries, home to 10 percent of all the species on the planet. It boasts more than 120,000 animal species, 50,000 plant species, 82,000 insect species and 4,000 fish species, in addition to thousands more types of algae, molluscs and spiders. But more than just important for maintaining the global ecosystem and environmental conservation, Brazil’s biodiversity offers great potential for medical innovation.

Huge advances have been made with biotechnology thanks to Brazil’s unmatched biodiversity, and the field is just beginning to be explored by scientists as they discover more of the country’s secrets. Biotech firms are finding cures for all sorts of illnesses and disorders, with the country’s prestigious federal universities recognizing their potential and investing in their development.

One such company is Biozeus, a private firm based in Rio de Janeiro that has received funding from the Federal University of Minas Gerais off the back of its research’s potential. Biozeus’s most famous of its four current projects takes the venom of the Amazon’s banana-spider, or the aggressive wandering-spider, and is using it to develop a Viagra-like drug. The spider’s bites often leave long-lasting and painful erections, but Biozeus’s CEO Luis Eduardo Caroli believes that this is just one of the ways that Brazil can take advantage of its rich biodiversity resources. The firm’s other projects include drugs for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and obesity – and it’s far from the only Brazilian firm exploring the possibilities offered by the country’s unique nature.

However, it is by no means the only medicine that benefits from biotechnology: two other key areas that are particularly gaining ground from biodiversity research initiatives are food and cosmetics. São Paulo-based firm Phytobios is developing an alternative red colouring for sports drinks from nanotechnology-stabilize guavas. In the BBC’s series in partnership with the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Apex-Brasil), Phytobios CEO Cristina Ropke explains: “The substance can be used in functional and sports drinks and has an advantage over the traditional tomato lycopene which is very unstable”.

Meanwhile Brazilian cosmetics giant Natura is among those exploring biodiversity’s potential. It recently developed a cream using seeds extracted from the Amazonian ucuuba tree, which can reach up to 60 meters and had previously been endangered. The firm is also employing local people to collect seeds, creating jobs in the process. “Ucuuba has a special and unique property of moisturizing the skin without leaving it sticky”, Natura’s director of research and innovation Alessandro Mendes says in the video.

But agriculture, too, could benefit from biotech’s developments. Firms like Promip are exploring the possibility of using genetically modified insects - wasps, ladybugs, dragonflies and bedbugs among them – as a way to fertilize farms and ward off pests like aphids, ants and flies. The firm is exploring options to monitor crops by drone, distributing its insects to weak points on plantations.

These explorations into biodiversity only became truly possible after Brazil passed its biodiversity legislation in 2015, and has gained public support as the public realize the potential for innovation. Moreover, change acted as a catalyst for the field’s development in Brazil, according to Phytobios’s Ropke. “There is a legal framework to show the way – something that a lot of countries are still working on”, says Cristina. “So Brazil is becoming a very interesting place for foreign partnerships.”

The video, made by Apex-Brasil in partnership with the BBC and the third in the current series of four, shows how Brazil’s biologists are using the country’s innumerable species to bring about advancements in a range of scientific fields. You can watch the video from the BBC series here, and read Vice’s article on Brazil’s biotech revolution here.