Fire destroyed the laboratories of the UNESP Institute of Biosciences in Rio Claro : Revista Pesquisa Fapesp

Incalculable damage to research and teaching of biological sciences. This is the conclusion of a preliminary assessment by professors and researchers from the Institute of Biosciences of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) about the fire that engulfed part of the central building in campus from Rio Claro. The fire, which started around 4pm on Wednesday (31/8) and was brought under control around four hours later, engulfed animal collections, teaching and research materials, as well as equipment such as microscopes and computers. No one was injured.

According to professors and researchers of the institute, two research laboratories and a zoology textbook were completely destroyed. According to zoologist Célio Haddad, who taught undergraduate students in this laboratory, there was a lot of equipment for teaching animal physiology and a collection of specimens. “We had stuffed shells, spiders, birds and mammals, as well as fish, amphibians and reptiles preserved in alcohol,” he reports. Haddad says that a lamina of excellent quality with which it was possible to study anatomical details of animals with microscopes was also lost. “It was precious material, rare in Brazilian universities because the faculty is very old.”

The destroyed material includes the so-called zoological collection of Naples, which was imported from Italy by the former Faculty of Philosophy, Science and Literature of Rio Clara, created in 1958 and which became part of Unesp in the 1970s. According to Haddad, the collection contained extinct animals and was important to teach about extinction and environmental degradation. “This is something that costs nothing because there is no way to replace such a collection,” he laments.

The botanical didactic laboratory, in addition to the zoological one, contains collections of mushrooms, algae and plants. Botanist Alessandra Ike Coan says that despite some damage, those materials were not lost, as the fire would have been contained by the masonry walls that separate the two teaching laboratories. Coan classifies the loss of zoology teaching material as “irreparable”. Patrícia Morellato, also a botanist, laments the damage to teaching activities, especially in relation to practical teaching: “The classroom teaching continues; many students have been in undergraduate studies for two years and have not yet come to university due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic. For practical classes, infrastructure is needed that has been destroyed or is prohibited in the affected building”.

In a note, Unesp stated that classes at the Rio Claro unit “will resume in full this Friday.” According to the document provided to journalists, there will be a relocation so that classes at the Institute of Biosciences can take place in other areas that were not affected by the fire.

Lost jobs, lost polls
On the upper floor, directly above the didactic zoology laboratory, there were two research laboratories: one for animal cytogenetics and one for environmental mutagenesis. Both were completely destroyed.

Patricia Morellato / UnexpOn the top floor, the damage reached the research laboratoriesPatricia Morellato / Unexp

The laboratories were used by more than 15 graduate students in cellular and molecular biology, under the guidance of three professors. One of them, the biologist Diogo Cavalcanti Cabral de Mello, listed some of the possible material losses only in the animal cytogenetics laboratory, which he uses together with his colleague Patrícia Maltempi. “We had two fluorescence microscopes that cost about BRL 450,000 each, two thermocyclers, which cost about BRL 50,000 each, in addition to an inverted microscope for cell culture, which should cost more than BRL 200,000,” says the researcher. Mello also mentions cheaper equipment and a server computer, which costs R$12,000.

If the material damage can be estimated, this cannot be said to be a scientific loss. Mello cites, among the lost research materials, a supply of flies Drosophila melanogaster with specific characteristics, locusts from the Spanish mountains, amphibians collected in Suriname. “There was a huge investment in collecting these materials.” The cost includes training the researchers who conduct the collections, a process of gaining expertise that takes years. We will hardly be able to replace the destroyed specimens, explains the biologist.

In addition to research material, years devoted to long-term research were also lost. Mello illustrates this bias: “There were two species of grasshoppers whose populations showed particular pheromones and we followed them for about 10 years.” He will have to start working again.

Biologist Maria Aparecida Marin Morales, in charge of the Environmental Mutagenesis Laboratory, besides lamenting the loss of equipment and research materials, says that her own room, which housed her private library, was destroyed. “I entered the building today [sexta-feira, 02/09] and I found that, except for the laboratory equipment, all my bibliographical sources, freely used by the students, were lost.”

infrastructure issues
In a note, Unesp stated that “the renovation of the IB’s central building in Rio Claro, along with the replacement of the electrical and hydraulic networks, is planned for 2023.” Still in the same press document, the university claims that “the management of the university unit was aware of the need for extensive structural reform in the building, built in 1977, and was preparing the bidding process this semester.”

The cause of the fire is being investigated. Haddad says the electrical network of the burnt building was “unsafe, very old”. “You could see these threads in the opening of the building, they looked like a spider’s web, all rolled up; the animals gnawed this wire,” he describes. “For decades, we’ve been asking for an overhaul of the building’s infrastructure,” says Morellato. He echoes Coan and adds, “Reforms will come too late.”

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