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  • CSIR researcher scoops 2013 Biotech Fundi award

    CSIR researcher scoops 2013 Biotech Fundi award
    26th Aug 2013

    CSIR Biosciences PhD student researcher, Jerolen Naidoo, walked away with the 2013 Biotech Fundi Research Award during the Gauteng’s Biotech Excellence Awards held at The Innovation Hub in Pretoria on 7 August 2013. Jerolen won the award for his research on the use of high-content screening and advanced microscopy approaches in order to investigate host-pathogen interactions in context of HIV-1 infection.

    The award is aimed at recognising and rewarding a young researcher in either the public or private sector whose cutting-edge research will improve, grow and develop the biotech capacity in Gauteng through the application of his/her knowledge or through product development and service delivery.

    CSIR PhD student researcher, Jerolen Naidoo, winner of the 2013 Biotech Fundi Research Award.

    “I feel very humbled and grateful that our research here at the Gene Expression and Biophysics group was able to receive this level of recognition. I am also very proud that I was able to successfully represent the CSIR at this event and highlight some of the cutting-edge research that we are undertaking,” says Jerolen.

    Under the guidance of his PhD advisor, Dr Musa Mhlanga, and a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory, Dr Samantha Barichievy, Jerolen was able to utilise a cell-based high-content screening approach to identify host microRNAs (miRNAs) capable of enhancing or suppressing HIV-1 infection.

    “These miRNAs were identified from our experimental data using a bespoke pattern recognition algorithm designed by our group’s software engineer, Rethabile Khutlang. The data we have generated from our screens have allowed us to uncover novel HIV-host interactions, as well as specific functional pathways that represent potential points of intervention for anti-HIV therapeutics,” says Jerolen.

    Jerolen mentions that he learned about the competition via a colleague at the African Centre for Gene Technologies (ACGT).

    “I would love to encourage everyone that is eligible to apply for these awards as they represent a truly prestigious accolade, as well as an important platform for us as the CSIR to showcase the impact of our work to many of our important stakeholders and partners.”

    “As researchers, we often get caught up in our work behind a bench and tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. I think that these awards are an important reminder that those many hours spent in the lab are not just in pursuit of degrees or publications, but that our research also has an important role to play in making a positive difference in the world around us.”

    “I was awarded with a certificate and trophy, as well as an opportunity to attend the BIO 2014 convention in the USA, paid for by the Gauteng Biotech Fundi Awards organisers. Further prizes have not yet been revealed,” concludes Jerolen.

    This was the 3rd Biennial Biotech Fundi Awards, a flagship programme by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in partnership with The Innovation Hub, which is aimed at recognising Gauteng’s Biotech community. The awards bring together various biotechnology role-players and stakeholders with the sole objective of recognising achievements and excellence in the sector.

    Story: S Ralarala, CSIR, News, August 2013

  • GCP hosts annual Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) meeting in Montpellier, France

    13th Aug 2013

    The CGIAR’s Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) recently held their annual Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) meeting in Montpellier, France. Dr John Becker, who is also represented on the Consortium Committee, attended the meeting from 17-20 June 2013.

    The IBP is conceived as a web-based, consolidated vehicle for dissemination of knowledge, tools and services, enabling broad access to and proactive distribution of crop information and breeding material; molecular, genomics and informatics technology; cost-effective high-throughput genotyping services; and capacity-building programmes to design and carry out crop breeding projects. IBP is particularly intended to boost crop productivity and resilience for smallholders in marginal environments by facilitating access to cutting-edge breeding technologies and informatics tools hitherto unavailable to developing-country breeders. The development of the Platform is a project bringing together numerous partnersand several key funders.

    The meeting brought together IBP users and developers, and included sessions for crop data managers, developers, the scientific and management advisory committee as well as a two-day hands-on trial of the workflow system by participants. The meeting was therefore a fitting forum for the release of Version 1 of the Integrated Breeding Workflow System (IBWS). The IBWS is the heart and arteries of the IBP. The IBWS is a package of software applications for crop breeders to plan, conduct, analyse and assess the outcomes of their work. Over the coming months, the GCP will improve this first version to optimise usability and functionality, based on the feedback they get from users. As they analyse and incorporate this feedback, the plan is to release IBWS Version 2 by the end of 2013. The IWBS can be accessed at the following link: www.integratedbreeding.net.

    A guided tour of the IBP portal is available at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myOKBb3b1WM&feature=c4-overview&list=UUq17cWfE2u7A3IbIniJ4amw&noredirect=1

    Additional queries can be directed to John Becker,

  • Kenyan team leads plans for livestock genebank

    9th Jul 2013

    Researchers in Kenya are working towards setting up the world’s first genebank for livestock.

    The genebank could help protect the biodiversity of threatened breeds and be a useful research tool, says the team, based at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya.

    Collecting genetic samples of species into genebanks is not new ― it has been done for many years with crops.

    But the importance of preserving the genetic diversity of livestock has been underestimated until now, says Jimmy Smith, ILRI’s director general.

    In Africa about a billion people depend on livestock for their livelihoods, and animal-sourced food makes an important contribution to nutrition, yet livestock biodiversity is being eroded as fast as crop biodiversity, he says.

    “If in the short term the main benefit would be to prevent biodiversity reduction, in the long term it could make a precious resource: by searching within the samples, we could isolate species that are resistant to particular diseases or can easily adapt to climate change,” says Smith.
    ILRI is investigating how best to realise the genebank, including what is needed in terms of technical skills, infrastructure and legislation.

    The researchers plan to use two different preserving techniques, cryopreservation, which would involve freezing animal cells at low temperatures using liquid nitrogen, and in vivo preservation.

    Irene Hoffmann, chief of the Animal Genetic Resources Branch of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, says there are technical and legal hurdles to realising a livestock genebank that may be difficult to overcome, especially in developing countries.
    “Many emerging countries do not have the infrastructure, they are not able to meet sanitary requirements or lack supplies of liquid nitrogen,” she says.

    There is also the issue of ownership, as some countries do not want to deposit what they consider their national heritage into a global genebank.

    This problem could be overcome by, for example, setting up a database to connect different national genebanks into a global network without moving the materials, says Hoffmann.

    At the moment the plans are at a preliminary stage and the project needs more funding, but Smith maintains that Africa has the right technical resources and know-how to accomplish the task.

    “To realise such a complex structure we will need different expertise ranging from biology, ecology and economy, but ILRI is a global organisation and we bring together the right technical skills from both developing and developed world,” he says.

    Story by: Oxfam International, Scidev.net

  • CSIR bioscientists nominated for NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards for new disinfectant

    20th Jun 2013

     

    Two CSIR bioscientists have been nominated for the 2012/13 NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards for work that led to the formulation of a new, environmentally-friendly disinfectant product.

    Dr Lucia Steenkamp and Prof Paul Steenkamp were nominated in the category for ‘research leading to innovation by teams or individuals through organisations’. This team embarked on a programme of evaluating environmentally friendly disinfectant products in the market. Through the application of advanced HPLC-MS techniques (a chemistry technique that combines the physical separation capabilities of liquid chromatography with the mass analysis capabilities of mass spectrometry), they were able to identify the composite ingredients and evaluate their potential function.

    The two also investigated a natural product that could be obtained from the fruit industry. A product was identified and found to be effective, but the manufacturing cost was too high to use the particular product on its own. However, a combination of the natural product and the compound resulted in a highly active biocide that is biodegradable, non-toxic and can be marketed as a ‘green’ product.

    The product was evaluated by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and has received three SABS SANS marks for product excellence, stability and activity, as the disinfectant kills 99.9% of pathogenic bacteria and microorganisms, even when highly diluted. As a result of the safety of the product, it can be used to sterilise food processing equipment, disinfect all medical equipment and medical surroundings, and even clean hard surfaces.

    The biocide is now available as four formulations that target the different industries. NutriDx is used mainly in the food industry; VitroDx in the health industry; AgriDx in the agricultural industry; and IndusDx for general purposes.

    “The product could have a significant impact from an environmental perspective, as it does not contribute to pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals normally employed in disinfectants. The product has obtained three SABS SANS marks for quality and is currently being investigated by different international detergent companies for licensing of the technology,” says Lucia Steenkamp.

    “It is a great honour for us to be nominated and it may contribute to improved visibility for the CSIR’s work in biotechnology. With a renewed drive to take more products to market, this product is a very good example of what can be achieved.”

    Finalists for the awards were honoured at the NSTF Plenary meeting in May, which will now be followed by NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards gala dinner on Thursday, 27 June 2013.

    The awards encourage and reward excellence in scientific research, technological innovation, education, capacity building and communication, thereby honouring and celebrating outstanding contributions to science, engineering, technology and innovation.

    Other nominees from the CSIR for the NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards include:

    • The Adaptive real-time internet streaming technology (ARTIST) team (a collaborative effort between the CSIR, University of Cape Town and East Coast Access): Team leader, Dr Keith Ferguson, chief engineer and research group leader.
    • Ultrasonic broken rail detection, IMT-CSIR team: Team leaders Dr Phillip Loveday and Francois Burger, of the Institute for Maritime Technology.

    The Annual NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards is the flagship project of the National Science and Technology Forum, the largest and most prominent multi-stakeholder representative forum for science, engineering, technology and innovation organisations in South Africa.

    Story: S. Ralarala, CSIE e-News, June 2013

  • GAP Biosciences Business Basic Workshop, Pretoria, 30-31 May 2013

    GAP Biosciences Business Basic Workshop, Pretoria, 30-31 May 2013
    19th Jun 2013

    ACGT Support Scientist, Jessika Samuels recently attended the two day workshop and reports the highlights of the event.

    The GAP Biosciences workshop agenda promised to be an intensive two day programme covering all aspects of how to translate laboratory innovations into market ready products, including all the steps and considerations in between. Looking through the agenda I remember thinking, that the information to be covered was extensive for a two day workshop. I wondered how I would manage through all the jargon and business terms that I was only vaguely familiar with.

    To my surprise, the lectures were easy to follow and understand. The presenters were exceptional and relayed the subject matter in an effortless and simple manner. The presenters, Emory University Alumni and local experts alike were friendly, approachable and ever willing to answer questions of the audience both during lectures and breakout sessions.

    Lectures I found especially useful were those concerning biotech business models and writing successful business plans. I especially liked the approach of using case studies in which there were scenarios where everything went close to perfect and others where things went horribly wrong, to teach the audience the do’s and don’ts. The banter amongst the presenters themselves and the audience created an atmosphere that was conducive to learning and open discussions. The local success stories were heart-warming and enlightening on the realities of managing a business and taking a product to market in SA.

    Overall, I found all the lectures highly informative and well presented. The workshop provided a comprehensive overview of the sometimes long and arduous journey from laboratory breakthrough to commercialisation, intellectual property protection, business models and plans, patent strategies, funding and local success stories all packed into two days.

    If you are interested in developing bio-products, have a product that requires further development, or are an up and coming researcher with entrepreneurial ambitions, I recommend you attend this workshop.

    For more information on the GAP Biosciences competition and the 2014 workshop go to  GAP Biosciences website.

                                                

  • Habib officially takes over

    Habib officially takes over
    13th Jun 2013

    Professor Adam Habib officially took over as the new Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Wits on Saturday, 1 June 2013. He takes over from Professor Loyiso Nongxa, who has served in this capacity for ten years.

    “Wits has incredible energy and depth, and promises to be world-class. It is probably the most diverse University on the African continent in terms of its demography, programmes and ideas,” says Habib. “It is definitely a microcosm of South Africa and a dichotomy of note, which makes it a very exciting and challenging place to lead.”

    Habib supports the Vision 2022 strategy and is confident that Wits can achieve the objectives set out therein. “Vision 2022 speaks to becoming more of a postgraduate, research-driven institution. This means that we will require the best talent – academic and support staff and quality students to make this happen. It also means that we have to balance access with success, without becoming elitist.”

    Habib has welcomed the multi-billion rand infrastructure programme that Wits has just completed. He has outlined six priority projects in the short-term which includes forming a shared social compact and investing heavily in people; increasing the University’s research output; preparing students so that they pass better;  giving access to talented students from disadvantaged communities; securing resources to fund priority areas and acquiring the best academic talent.

    “I am ready to engage robustly in the global war for the very best academic talent,” says Habib. “If we are going to be the best, then we have to secure the best scholars and scientists on the planet. This also means that we need to look after those who are already on board and who are productive and leading the way in their respective areas.”

    “I am looking forward to working with the Wits community to make our University one of the best in the country and the world.”

    Story: Shirona Patel, Wits news, 02 June 2013

  • High impact publications from ACGT partner institutions, April-May 2013

    High impact publications from ACGT partner institutions, April-May 2013
    29th May 2013

    Honorary Professor Osman Sankoh from the School of Public Health is a co-author on the article “The global distribution and burden of dengue” that was published in Nature in April 2013. Dengue is a systemic viral infection that is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes and usually results in a wide range of clinical symptoms, from mild fever to severe fatal dengue shock syndrome. The study estimated that the global burden of dengue is around 390 million infections per year – this is three times higher than the figure currently reported by the World Health Organization.  To date there are no effective antiviral agents for the treatment of dengue, or a licensed vaccine for infection prevention. This study illuminates the global public health burden of dengue and will impact on the development of control strategies including vaccine, drug and vector control methods.

    Source: Wits Health Sciences Research Newsletter- May 2013.05.29

    Development of a new tool to identify broadly neutralising antibodies  against HIV strains

    Professor Lynn Morris of the NICD AIDS Unit and the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences is a co-author on an article which was published in Science in May 2013. In the article entitled “Delineating Antibody Recognition in Polyclonal Sera from Patterns of HIV-1 Isolate Neutralization”, the authors describe the development of a new tool for identifying powerful, neutralising antibodies against most strains of HIV.  The new tool – known as neutralisation fingerprinting – is a mathematical algorithm that uses existing data on broadly neutralising antibodies (bNAbs) to accurately determine the specific HIV bNAbs in blood samples by analysing the neutralised HIV strains in these samples. This new tool is much faster and less laborious than existing methods that yield information about bNAbs and will be useful in the development of an effective HIV vaccine.

    Source: Wits Health Sciences Research Newsletter- May 2013.05.29

    South African scientist helps peers unravel the function of a bacterial cell membrane protein

    Major step to unravelling the structure of membrane-bound proteins published in Nature journal.

    In their pursuit of knowledge on cell biology, a group of international researchers has elucidated the structure of a bacterial cell membrane enzyme, which may one day contribute to unravelling new mechanisms to target a variety of diseases. One of the contributing researchers is South African biochemist, Dr Colin Kenyon, who has joined a handful of researchers at the CSIR to be published in the prestigious Nature journal. Kenyon, a principal researcher and CSIR Biosciences Fellow, contributed to an article titled, Crystal structure of the integral membrane diacylglycerol kinase, which was published in Nature’s online edition at www.nature.com on 15 May 2013.

    Kenyon was approached by Prof Martin Caffrey, an expert in the field of the structure of membrane proteins at the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College, Dublin in Ireland, on the basis of work Kenyon and his colleagues at the CSIR had published earlier. Kenyon’s research relates to the study of reaction mechanisms of proteins called kinases, and how these proteins use adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule which is the energy currency of cells.  Kinases play a pivotal role in cellular metabolism and regulation, and therefore represent 20-30% of all targets in serious drug discovery programmes, for example, targeting the treatment of cancer and diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and other bacterial infections.

    Historically, it has been difficult to determine the three-dimensional structure and function of membrane-bound proteins, information which is essential for this research. Researchers normally use X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of proteins, but membrane-bound proteins are situated in lipids, which means that they are hydrophobic – literally meaning ‘water fearing’. If extracted, they unravel and lose their structure. Thanks to groundbreaking research by teams such as the group headed by Caffrey, techniques are now being developed to determine the X-ray structure of crystallised membrane proteins.

    Kenyon and his colleagues were requested to help define the functionality of the newly crystallised diacylglycerol kinase (a bacterial membrane enzyme), which Caffrey and his colleagues were studying. The group presented a crystal structure for three functional forms of the bacterial membrane enzyme.

    “The membrane proteins are a potentially vast untapped source of new targets in drug discovery,” Kenyon says.

    Nature’s impact factor is 36,28; this is a measure of how many times a journal generates citations in other work as measured by the Thomson Institute of Scientific Information. This is among the highest of any science journal and there is great competition among scientists to have their work published there. For most researchers, this type of publication is not only about the prestige of publishing in this specific journal, but also the credence it brings to years of exploratory research.

    Source: CSIR eNews- May 2013

  • DST and TIA co-host Biocatalysis and Enzyme Manufacturing Stakeholder Workshop

    DST and TIA co-host Biocatalysis and Enzyme Manufacturing Stakeholder Workshop
    2nd May 2013

    A national Biocatalysis and Enzyme Manufacturing Stakeholder Workshop was held at the Irene Country Lodge on the 15th of March 2013. Co-hosted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the workshop aimed to assess stakeholder support for the establishment of a National Biocatalysis Centre, as well as the need for the capability to manufacture enzymes in South Africa. The ACGT was instrumental in the coordination of the event and pre-event facilitation between the hosts.

    The morning session was driven by Ms Blanche Ting (DST Senior Specialist – Biotechnology) presented the role of biocatalysis in the new National Bioeconomy Strategy. Prof Dean Brady (HOD, School of Chemistry- Wits) elaborated on the proposed National Biocatalysis Centre, in which the University of the Witwatersrand and the CSIR act as hubs for the national network. The proposed centre was positively received by both academic and industry participants.

    The afternoon session focussed on the need for local enzyme manufacturing and was driven by TIA. Dr Bethuel Nthangeni (Senior Investment Specialist Industrial Biotechnology Sector- TIA) presented TIA’s vision and approach in the industrial biotechnology sector.

    Participants at the workshop were inclusive of academia, science councils, government, and industry. The workshop was well received and the organising team were commended for mobilising members from all sectors, especially industry. The day included two discussion sessions, the outcomes of which will be utilised by the hosts to plot a way forward. There was a lot of interest and support generated by the workshop and participants were keen to be informed of outcomes and events emanating from these efforts. The hosts will build on this momentum and ensure information and updates are communicated accordingly. Overall, participants hailed the event a great success.

     

     

  • Some Bacteria Like it Hot

    Some Bacteria Like it Hot
    24th Apr 2013

    Benjamin Kumwenda from Malawi began his scientific career studying undergraduate biology at the University of Malawi – Chancellor College in Zomba. But as he made his way through the course requirements for his Bachelor of Science degree, he felt equally drawn to Computer Science, and took as many interesting CS courses as he could fit into his schedule.

    “In this part of Africa people think that Computer Science is just about maintaining computers,” he said. “But my interest was in the application of Computer Science to my major understanding of genes, genomes, and proteins to solve biological and medical problems. These are intensively data-driven activities that require a lot of computation.”

    When he earned his Bachelor of Science degree at an honors level, the next logical step was to combine his two interests. He was able to do that at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, where he moved to study computational biology at the master’s level. His work there gave him a solid background in bioinformatics, and the opportunity to join the RISE-SABINA network at the University of Pretoria nearby. There he found a kindred spirit in Prof. Oleg Reva, a native of the Ukraine and specialist in bioinformatics who welcomed Benjamin and his enthusiasm for the subject.

    Benjamin’s work at Pretoria does not require huge computing power, but his dual background of biology and computer science is well suited to the challenges of bioinformatics. These include the study and modeling of individual genes and whole genomes. The knowledge of these complex systems can open the way to the design of valuable new chemicals for industry and drugs for medicine. For example, detailed knowledge of protein structure can allow the design of a drug that will bind tightly to a site and prevent another agent, such as a disease organism, from binding to the same site and causing disease. In the same way, a researcher might study the genome of a little-known bacterium and identify a genetic trait that is known from other organisms and that might be useful for industry.

    When Benjamin arrived, he had several options for moving ahead at the PhD level. One was to concentrate his work in the area of natural products, which is the main thrust of SABINA. But he knew that Prof. Reva was working on bacteria, and he saw an opportunity to become expert in the exciting new area of thermophilic bacteria and its many practical applications.

    Once a curiosity, this special class of living organisms (“thermophilic” derives from the Greek for heat-loving) is now drawing attention from researchers around the world. Benjamin is interested partly in discovering how they are equipped to survive at such high temperatures; most species function best at temperatures somewhat above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degree Fahrenheit), but some of them, often called “extremophiles,” flourish at temperatures near and sometimes above the boiling point of water, 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). These bacteria are familiar to many travelers who have visited Yellowstone National Park in the USA or other sites of geysers, fumaroles, or hot springs where these organisms thrive and create colorful patterns and textures against rocky backgrounds.

    At a more practical level, he is also learning how these bacteria synthesize proteins, and how those proteins, especially the enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions, might be useful. Many industrial processes, such as generation of biofuels, occur most efficiently at high temperatures, where many bacteria do not perform well. Thermophilic species are the exception in preferring hot environments, and much sought-after as powerful catalytic tools. The higher the temperature, the more efficient their enzymes tend to be, and the faster their reactions with other chemicals.

    Some thermophilic species are already proving valuable in producing paper, dairy products, clothing, and other products. A goal in making shoe leather, for example, is to make the leather soft. This can be done with enzymes that partially break down the skins of the leather, and the enzymes of thermophilic bacteria can do it fastest. In the same way, the food industry uses enzymes to tenderize meat, and the laundry industry uses thermophilic bacteria to make detergent more efficient. In addition, the bacteria has good ability to clean up water than has been polluted by heavy metals such as chromium, iron, and zinc, and to reduce the toxicity of heavy metals in food.

    Benjamin has been working in particular on South African species of bacteria, seeking to  understand them in the context of others that have been studied previously. He is especially interested in finding genetic patterns that determine thermo-stable behavior at high temperatures. This exercise in comparative genomics helps him identify sections of the genome that seem likely to be useful for industrial needs, especially new ones.

    More specifically, his project focuses on the completely sequenced genome of the bacterium Thermus scotoductus strain SA-01, which was isolated at a depth of 3.2 kilometers in a goldmine at Witwatersrand. The goal is to compare its genome against other bacteria and understand its features. He has examined the enzymes it produces and determined the properties of those enzymes, especially the temperatures at which they can function efficiently in the laboratory.

    “The theory,” he said, “is that as proteins are being created, they fold into a structure that is thermodynamically stable. This means that the most stable structures are the ones that expend the least amount of energy as they fold. The energetic features of various configurations of proteins are already known, so when we find the protein of thermophilic bacteria fold in a certain way in nature, we calculate the energy and know that will be stable. Then we have a good idea of what properties, or chemical reactions, it will have, and think about designing enzymes that do the same things.”

    Benjamin started his PhD work in April 2010, and expects to complete his degree shortly. He has already completed a paper on his studies for BMC Genomics apr 29, 2009 – an open access, peer-reviewed journal.

    Story: Alan Anderson, SIG blog- April 2013

  • Modernizing the Horticulture of Tea

    Modernizing the Horticulture of Tea
    9th Apr 2013

    Godwil Madamombe, a native of Zimbabwe, earned his bachelor’s degree in crop science and his master’s degree in crop protection at the University of Zimbabwe, based in Harare. During his first major crop protection project, he worked for the government as a plant pathologist. He was tasked with conducting research on many common and injurious diseases, including Fusarium bark disease, coffee berry disease, leaf rust and others; he used cultural, biological, and host plant resistance and chemical methods in developing integrated disease management programs.

    A significant part of his MSc studies were aimed at determining the extent to which smallholder farmers planted soybean seed that had been kept from the previous year’s crop. The reason they retained seed was that they could not afford to buy fresh seed each year, and they would usually continue to plant the retained seed for as long as it lasted. But this habit brought many drawbacks. The most direct of these was the introduction of seed-borne pathogens to the next year’s crop. In addition, while these “free” seeds did germinate, they usually lost more and more of their genetic disease resistance and vigor during each successive year. For example, Godwil found that most farmers following this practice would lose between 15 and 30 percent of their crop during the first year. By the third or fourth year, the yields would be too low to support the farmer. At that point, unless the government provided new seed for free, they would have nothing to plant. Sometimes a seed company would bring them new seed, but they had to agree to sell their entire crop back to the company at a low price, and also to pay for transporting the harvested beans to the company.

    “We offered the farmers herbicides and fungicides to reduce the losses,” said Godwil, “but they couldn’t afford them. We felt very helpless. All we could do was to recommend keeping the fields clear of weeds, drying the seed they harvested, and storing it in a moisture-free environment, which they usually didn’t have.”

    After completing his master’s studies in 2003 he was offered a job in Zimbabwe with the Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa (TRFCA). With some variation by year, Zimbabwe is the third-, fourth-, or fifth-largest tea producer in Africa, producing about 18,000 tons of tea annually – more than Zambia or Mozambique, but less than the 40,000 tons of Malawi and the 345,000 tons of Kenya, the world’s third-largest producer after China and India. But Zimbabwe tea is known for high quality and high yields, and as the country struggles to emerge from a period of political strife, its growers are eager to maintain that reputation.

    During his work for the TFRCA, Godwil saw that a significant problem for the Zimbabwe tea industry was the shortage of labor, which had become a problem in nearby Malawi as well. The tea industry had long depended on labor from Mozambique, which was plentiful during the years of civil war there, from 1977 to 1992. Many workers sought to escape the violence in Mozambique and were willing to work hard and cheaply in neighboring countries. After the war, however, these laborers were quick to abandon the arduous, low-paying job of picking tea in favor of jobs closer to home. The supply of labor declined, and tea growers were forced to turn to the mechanization of tea harvesting.

    After using the machines for some time, the growers realized that their yields were declining, but they did not know why. Godwil was asked to search for the reason, and he quickly identified several problems. First, the machine harvesters were non-selective, taking the immature leaves/shoots as well as the mature shoots and in the process damaging the bush. However, the tea industry had no other option besides mechanical harvesting now that labor was either not available or, if available, more expensive than it had been during wartime. In addition, Godwil knew there were many other reasons for yield decline that were not understood. For example, the growers wanted to compensate for the reduced yield by making the plants grow faster and produce more mature leaves – but without losing flavor. This raised many basic questions of horticulture. For example, no one knew how much of the products of photosynthesis was going to the shoots and how much to the roots under mechanical harvesting. Also, growers knew that more nutrients are removed from fields through machine harvesting, but they did not know how much of the fertilizer was taken up by the roots and how much was taken up by the plant for shoot growth. Of the solid nitrate scattered between rows, how much was actually made available to the plant? During harvesting, how much of the fertilizer leached into the soil or was removed by different harvesting methods?

    Through his work at the TRFCA, Godwil heard about the SABINA network in biotechnology and informatics, which was already involved in tea research from a genetic viewpoint. For example, SABINA students are searching for the genes that control drought resistance and other desirable traits. He was accepted in 2010 as a PhD student in horticultural science, gaining access to the advanced research facilities and expert researchers at the University of Pretoria and the nearby Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

    Godwil joined the RISE program in 2010 but had to delay his research in order to take several advanced courses in Pretoria. He was able to begin field work in Zimbabwe in 2011, visiting Pretoria every three months to consult with Prof. Zeno Apostolides, Dr. Nicolette Taylor, Dr. Eyob Tesfamariam, and other mentors and colleagues. In the lab, he is about to do the kinds of complex biochemistry not possible in the field, such as starch analysis. He has access to such instrumentation as centrifuges, a photospectrometer to measure starch level, ceptometer to measure the amount of light reaching the tea plant, photosynthesis system to measure the rate of photosynthesis with the tea bush canopy, sensitive scales and pH meters, and a controlled temperature water bath. He has faced numerous logistical delays, including the slow arrival of new equipment and implementation of reliable weather station tracking on the tea farms. He also needs to obtain data through the full tea pruning cycle, which spans three years. But he has been cleared to extend his research to June 2013, and he is optimistic that it will bring value to the tea growers. At a recent professional presentation on his work at the 2nd All-Africa Horticultural Congress at Skukuza,  Kruger National Park, attended by horticultural experts from all over Africa, his presentation won first prize.

    Source: Alan Anderson-Science Initiative Group (SIG) Blog