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16-year-old Maranhão native takes prize at world's largest pre-university science fair |  Sciences

16-year-old Maranhão native takes prize at world's largest pre-university science fair | Sciences

At the age of 16, student Pedro Paulo Milhomim Braga received the Non-Trivial Prize at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, the world's largest pre-university science fair, which took place from May 11 to 17 in Los Angeles, in the United States.

The Pedro Paulo Project aims to find ways to eliminate outbreaks of tropical diseases, e.g Aedes aegypti (Vector of dengue, chikungunya, Zika and yellow fever) and Anopheles (from malaria). To do this, he began researching how to protect traditional communities in his region from these threats. Born in Imperatriz, Maranhão, he found the answer in gua bravo, a common weed on Brazilian soil.

Eliminate disease vectors

Imperatriz is known as the “Gateway to the Amazon”, and its hot and humid tropical climate encourages the transmission of arboviruses, such as dengue for example. As of May 23, Brazil has recorded 5,213,564 possible cases of the disease in 2024 alone, according to the Virus Surveillance Committee of the Ministry of Health. This number is three times higher than the number recorded last year (2023), which amounted to about 1.6 million possible cases.

It is in this context that the Pedro Paulo project comes into play: in the research, the young man analyzes the biological potential of the extract of the leaves of this species Solanum viarum donal As a larvicide (an agent that destroys larvae). In addition to producing a biological larvicide, he created a biocontrol prototype for genetically modifying vector larvae, EcoLarvaControl.

A prototype of the biocontrol unit was created for the project — Photo: personal archive

To Galileo, the student explains that mosquito larvae (culicidae dipterans) develops inside the main chamber of the prototype while absorbing the active ingredients from the extract. “For further testing, we were able to reduce the development time of the larvae, which usually ranges from seven to 10 days,” says Pedro Paulo. “By using specific nutrients, we cut this time in half. In just five days, the larvae turn into mosquitoes. Only the male larvae turn into mosquitoes.”

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Among the results was a mutation in genes responsible for detoxifying chemicals and sexual dimorphism in the surviving mosquitoes, rendering them sterile, that is, unable to reproduce.

It has been observed that the active ingredients present in the extract do not kill insects immediately, but interfere with their development and act as a growth regulator. Saponins showed the best lethality within 24 hours at a concentration of 400mg/ml – and the project also showed that 500ml of the extract could kill 5,000 larvae.

International Exhibition

The 2024 edition of the Regeneron ISEF included representatives from 70 countries, including 11 young Brazilians. According to the Science Association, which organizes the event, the “Non-Trivial” category awards high school students between the ages of 14 and 20 with the aim of “recognizing and encouraging projects that address the world’s most pressing problems, such as climate change and pandemics.” And the risks of artificial intelligence.

Pedro Paulo received a prize of US$500, plus US$15,000 to improve the work supervised by Professor Zelmar Timoteo Soares, from the State University of Tocantina in Maranhão (UEMASUL). The school worked in partnership with the university to develop work through the Scientific Trainee Guidance Program.

16-year-old Maranhão native receives a prize at the world's largest pre-university science fair – Photo: personal archive

In 2023, Pedro Paulo's project has already reached the final stage at the International Science and Technology Fair (Mostratec), held in Novo Hamburg (RS). From this exhibition, finalists from seven states (RS, SC, PR, SP, CE, RN and MA) were selected to represent Brazil at the 2024 Regeneron ISEF.

The young man says that he intends to pursue a career in medicine without leaving research aside. “It was a great pleasure to be able to represent my city in the interior of Maranhão, my state and my country,” he says. “[Espero] That I can contribute to improving the quality of life in society, in the network in which I live, if I cannot say, in the world.”

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