Managing Microbes in Brazil’s Agricultural South

BTI Director travels to Brazil to mentor students researching bioremediation of agriculture chemicals.


BTI Director Michael Sadowsky understands both French and Spanish, but hardly a word of Portuguese. Yet this summer he launched a two-year collaborative research initiative in Ponta Grossa, Brazil, as part of the Brazilian Government’s Science Without Borders Project.

Sponsored by Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPQ), Brazil’s equivalent of the National Science Foundation, the program allows Sadowsky to share his expertise in microbiology and bioremediation with colleagues and students in this Southern Brazilian industrial and agricultural center.

In Brazil, Sadowsky works alongside his long-time colleague Marcos Pileggi, a professor of biology and evolution at the Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa. Along with Pileggi’s students, the pair will conduct research on bacterial pesticide degradation that could help protect Brazil’s environment and save money for local farmers and pesticide manufacturers.

According to Sadowsky, Brazilian farmers receive concentrated chemicals from pesticide and herbicide companies, often in five-gallon buckets. Farmers then transfer the liquid to large tanks and add water to dilute the chemicals before spraying.

But not all of the pesticide is used and the toxic residue can’t be thrown away or dumped in the environment. Some manufactures provide a pick-up service for the remaining liquid, and store it in large tanks where it degrades over time. But if the biodegradation is incomplete, they burn it — and burning liquid is very expensive.

With Sadowsky’s help, Pileggi and his lab of 10 undergraduate and graduate students hope to identify bacteria that will naturally and efficiently degrade the concentrated liquid waste. During Sadowsky’s first 10-day trip, the group created a research plan and took initial steps toward isolating bacteria capable of degrading leftover pesticides and herbicides.

“Bacteria are the most versatile tool we have for degrading compounds in the environment,” Sadowsky said. “We are trying to find more environmentally friendly ways of doing things, and very often that involves old-fashioned microbiology.”

The team put the chemicals in a tank and added different types of bacteria to see which microbes would survive and grow using the pesticides and herbicides as a food source. The technique (called enrichment) was developed in the late 1800s and is still considered the most effective way to find bacteria that can breakdown chemical compounds.

Sadowsky, who also serves as co-Director of MnDRIVE’s microbial bioremediation initiative, began international scientific work in the 80s, and he has visited Brazil a few times before, but this is his first fully funded research trip abroad.

“Brazil is a good place to perform the research,” Sadowsky said, “because some of the herbicides and pesticides the lab is now studying have been banned in the United States.”

The seed for the collaboration was planted almost five years ago when Pileggi came to Minnesota to research pesticide degradation with Sadowsky’s lab. Now, upon Pillegi’s request, the two professors have swapped roles.

“This is a great experience for me,” Sadowsky said. “Hopefully we’ll develop some new technologies out of this research. But that’s going to take some time, and we’ll have to see if it really comes to fruition.”

Sadowsky’s trip has a strong educational focus as well, and supports Science Without Border’s goal of increasing the number of Brazilian Ph.D.’s  through international scientific research and collaboration.

“Mike is helping me organize my Environmental Microbiology Laboratory with more focus and efficiency,” Pileggi said. “He pushed us a lot, and we enjoyed it.”

Students from the Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa, can continue their training at institutions like the Federal University system, which grants Ph.D.’s.

Sadowsky will travel to Brazil six times over the next two years. Once the project is complete, he hopes to invite some of the Brazilian students to the United States where they can receive advanced training in new and emerging technologies.

Going Global

BTI Annouces new 5-year academic exchange agreement with Osaka University’s Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research

Building on the success of its academic exchange programs with the Nara Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Nara, Japan), BTI recently announced a new 5-year Academic Exchange Agreement with Osaka University’s Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research (ISIR). The exchange program will include collaborative research, symposiums, and the exchange of researchers, including undergraduate and graduate students.

The ISIR has a strong international focus with an emphasis on basic and applied research related to energy, the environment, and the biological and molecular sciences. Interdisciplinary in nature, the institute includes researchers from the Departments of Microbiology, Material Sciences, Nanotechnology and Information Sciences and is part of collaboration network between Japanese national universities including the Institute for Materials Chemistry and Engineering at Kyushu University and the Chemical Resources Laboratory at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

According  to BTI Director Mike Sadowsky “ISIR is a good partner for academic exchange for BTI. Both share a cross-disciplinary approach to basic and applied research.”

The collaboration began this summer when BTI hosted the first group of five senior researchers from ISIR in a 2-day program featuring formal presentations by BTI and ISIR. The visit also included series of breakout sessions were members of ISIR met individually with BTI members with similar research interests. According to Sadowsky, who launched the program after an exploratory visit to ISIR in 2012, the breakout sessions are extremely important in forging personal bonds between international researchers and in exploring potential areas for collaboration.

The symposium included presentations by BTI members Daniel Bond,
Jeff Gralnick, Igor Libourel, Romas Kazlauskas, Yiannis Kaznessis, Dan Knights, Mike Sadowsky, and Michael Travisano. ISIR presentors included:

Yashushi Yagi (ISIR director, Department of Intelligent Media), who gave and overview of ISIR’s mission and research and discussed his research Yagi focuses on computer vision and pattern recognition and advances in computer imaging using parallel high-frequency illumination.

Nobuo Kato (Department of Organic Fine Chemicals) spoke about his lab’s efforts to stabilize protein-protein interactions with the possibly of developing drug targeting technologies.

Takeharu Nagai (Department of Biomolecular Science and Engineering) presented his research on Nano-lanterns and luminescence indicators for bioimaging to help solve the problem of autofluorescence in the imaging of plant microbe interaction.

Kunihiko Nishino (Laboratory of Microbiology & Infectious Diseases) who presented work on multi-drug efflux pumps in Salmonella enterica and their relevance to antibiotic resistance.

Kazuhiko Nakatani (Department of Regulatory Bioorganic Chemistry) presented his work on base pair mismatching and the introduction of single nucleotide polymorphisms as a way to develop desirable phenotypes in plants.

BTI Assistant Director Tim Tripp commented, “The ISIR-BTI symposium demonstrated that the language of Life Sciences transcends national and regional culture. Uncovering biotechnology solutions to global problems will require the kind of international collaboration begun by BTI and ISIR.”