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  • Dr Rachel Chikwamba to serve on African Union panel and Medical Research Board

    12th Jan 2017

    Dr Rachel Chikwamba, CSIR Group Executive: Strategic Alliances and Communication, was recently appointed to the African Union (AU) high-level committee on Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA 2024) and to the South African Medical Research Board.

    Rachel will join a nine-member High-Level African Panel on Emerging Technologies, which is composed of eminent experts who advise the AU and all its affiliates on harnessing emerging technologies.

    In June 2014, the AU adopted a long-term STISA 2024 roadmap to underpin its Agenda 2063, with its main drive as the diversification of sources of economic growth and lifting the continent’s population out of poverty. The strategy aims to foster social and economic transformation by developing human capital, innovation, value addition, industrialisation and entrepreneurship.

    STISA 2024 has identified six priority areas namely: Eradicating hunger and ensuring nutrition and food security; prevention and control of diseases and ensuring wellbeing; communication (physical and intellectual mobility); natural resources management and climate change; peace and security and wealth creation. A major recognition in STISA 2024 is that the continent needs to apply existing and emerging technologies to realise the AU vision.

    Rachel will also serve on the South African Medical Research Board for the period 2016 to 2019 together with 15 other distinguished leaders.

    Story by: Anna Semenya, CSIR News

  • Plant-Based Biologics proves a popular and relevant field of biotechnology at ACGT Regional Plant Forum

    7th Dec 2016

    The ACGT, in conjunction with the CSIR, hosted the 12th Regional Plant Biotechnology Forum on the 8th of September at the CSIR’s International Convention Centre (ICC). The forum focused on “Plant-based biologics” and saw over 50 delegates in attendance.

    The forum kicked off with Dr Rachel Chikwamba, CSIR Executive for Strategic Alliances and Communications, giving a brief welcome and introducing the forum’s key-note speaker, Professor Herta Steinkellner. Herta is a professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria. She has expertise in N-glycosylation in plants, recombinant protein production in plants as well as protein glycan engineering.  She gave a presentation titled “In planta engineering of post-translational protein modification to enhance biological activity”, which was very well received by the audience and sparked interest in future collaborations between her institution, BOKU, and the CSIR.

    Other contributors to the forum included CSIR’s Dr Tsepo Tsekoa and Dr Maretha O’Kennedy, Dr Priyen Pillay from the University of Pretoria and Dr Mauritz Venter from the biotechnology company Azargen.   Dr Tsekoa’s presentation was on plant-made antibodies for passive immunisation, while Dr O’Kennedy gave a talk on affordable plant-produced vaccines and biologics through innovative science. Dr Pillay gave a talk on his PhD work, performed at the University of Pretoria, which focused on the contribution of agrofiltration to VP1 recombinant protein degradation. Dr Venter, co-founder and CEO of AzarGen Biotechnologies, gave a talk on “Entrepreneurial endeavours in Plant Biotechnology” and took the audience on a very entertaining journey of how he started his own successful biotechnology company. 

    The ACGT partner institutions were well represented by the delegates that attended the forum. Delegates were mostly from the ACGT partner institutions (CSIR, UP, ARC and UJ) but also affiliated with the following: Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and the University of South Africa (UNISA). The forum provided an opportunity for collaborative talks to be initiated between the CSIR, BOKU and Azargen. Potential synergies between these and other research institutions will be evaluated and exploited where possible.

     

    Story by: Thabo Khoza for ACGT

  • Bringing Silicon to Life

    1st Dec 2016

    A new study is the first to show that living organisms can be persuaded to make silicon-carbon bonds—something only chemists had done before. Scientists at Caltech “bred” a bacterial protein to have the ability to make the man-made bonds, a finding that has applications in several industries.

    Molecules with silicon-carbon, or organosilicon, compounds are found in pharmaceuticals as well as in many other products, including agricultural chemicals, paints, semiconductors, and computer and TV screens. Currently, these products are made synthetically, since the silicon-carbon bonds are not found in nature.

    The new research, which recently won Caltech’s Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) grand prize, demonstrates that biology can instead be used to manufacture these bonds in ways that are more environmentally friendly and potentially much less expensive.

    “We decided to get nature to do what only chemists could do—only better,” says Frances Arnold, Caltech’s Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, and principal investigator of the new research, published in the Nov. 24 issue of the journal Science.

    The study is also the first to show that nature can adapt to incorporate silicon into carbon-based molecules, the building blocks of life. Scientists have long wondered if life on Earth could have evolved to be based on silicon instead of carbon. Science-fiction authors likewise have imagined alien worlds with silicon-based life, like the lumpy Horta creatures portrayed in an episode of the 1960s TV series Star Trek. Carbon and silicon are chemically very similar. They both can form bonds to four atoms simultaneously, making them well suited to form the long chains of molecules found in life, such as proteins and DNA.

    “No living organism is known to put silicon-carbon bonds together, even though silicon is so abundant, all around us, in rocks and all over the beach,” says Jennifer Kan, a postdoctoral scholar in Arnold’s lab and lead author of the new study. Silicon is the second most abundant element in Earth’s crust.

    The researchers used a method called directed evolution, pioneered by Arnold in the early 1990s, in which new and better enzymes are created in labs by artificial selection, similar to the way that breeders modify corn, cows, or cats. Enzymes are a class of proteins that catalyze, or facilitate, chemical reactions. The directed evolution process begins with an enzyme that scientists want to enhance. The DNA coding for the enzyme is mutated in more-or-less random ways, and the resulting enzymes are tested for a desired trait. The top-performing enzyme is then mutated again, and the process is repeated until an enzyme that performs much better than the original is created.

    Directed evolution has been used for years to make enzymes for household products, like detergents; and for “green” sustainable routes to making pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, and fuels.

    In the new study, the goal was not just to improve an enzyme’s biological function but to actually persuade it to do something that it had not done before. The researchers’ first step was to find a suitable candidate, an enzyme showing potential for making the silicon-carbon bonds.

    “It’s like breeding a racehorse,” says Arnold, who is also the director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center at Caltech. “A good breeder recognizes the inherent ability of a horse to become a racer and has to bring that out in successive generations. We just do it with proteins.”

    The ideal candidate turned out to be a protein from a bacterium that grows in hot springs in Iceland. That protein, called cytochrome c, normally shuttles electrons to other proteins, but the researchers found that it also happens to act like an enzyme to create silicon-carbon bonds at low levels. The scientists then mutated the DNA coding for that protein within a region that specifies an iron-containing portion of the protein thought to be responsible for its silicon-carbon bond-forming activity. Next, they tested these mutant enzymes for their ability to make organosilicon compounds better than the original.

    After only three rounds, they had created an enzyme that can selectively make silicon-carbon bonds 15 times more efficiently than the best catalyst invented by chemists. Furthermore, the enzyme is highly selective, which means that it makes fewer unwanted byproducts that have to be chemically separated out.

    “This iron-based, genetically encoded catalyst is nontoxic, cheaper, and easier to modify compared to other catalysts used in chemical synthesis,” says Kan. “The new reaction can also be done at room temperature and in water.”

    The synthetic process for making silicon-carbon bonds often uses precious metals and toxic solvents, and requires extra processing to remove unwanted byproducts, all of which add to the cost of making these compounds.

    As to the question of whether life can evolve to use silicon on its own, Arnold says that is up to nature. “This study shows how quickly nature can adapt to new challenges,” she says. “The DNA-encoded catalytic machinery of the cell can rapidly learn to promote new chemical reactions when we provide new reagents and the appropriate incentive in the form of artificial selection. Nature could have done this herself if she cared to.”

    The Science paper, titled “Directed Evolution of Cytochrome c for Carbon-Silicon Bond Formation: Bringing Silicon to Life,” is also authored by Russell Lewis and Kai Chen of Caltech. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Caltech Innovation Initiative program, and the Jacobs Institute for Molecular Engineering for Medicine at Caltech.

    Story by: Whitney Clavin for Caltech

  • Biotechnology: A growing field in the developing world

    Biotechnology: A growing field in the developing world
    16th Nov 2016

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    The developing world is achieving significant growth in a broad cross-section of biotechnology fields, many of them directly tied to food production, health and other dimensions of human well-being, says a new analysis commissioned by the CAS-TWAS Centre of Excellence in Biotechnolgy.

    The first-of-its kind report, ‘Biotechnology in Developing Countries: Growth and Competitiveness’ was released today by the Beijing-based centre, which is organized by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). The CAS-TWAS Centre of Excellence for Biotechnology report provides an assessment of research and patents in the field across the global South.

    “This report is, to the best of my knowledge, the first extensive document summarizing the development status of a specific technology area in the developing world,” writes Bai Chunli, the president of both CAS and TWAS, in the foreword. “It provides a strong, valuable assessment of biotechnology activities in developing countries, as measured in scientific publications and patents.”

    Simultaneously, it highlights the important role of international collaboration in the rapid pace of growth in the field, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

    The report found that from 2004 to 2015:

    • Biotechnology research has grown steadily, with a 117% increase in published studies. However, biotechnology research from the developing world is less cited in other research papers – only about 83% as much.
    • Over 85% of the biotech papers that were co-authored by science-and-technology lagging countries resulted from international collaborations. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa in particular benefited from international collaboration, resulting in a notably high impact.
    • Patent filings in the developing world have been most active in industry, food and environmental biotechnology sectors. Most of those patents have been new enzymes, totalling 79,694 – comprising of more than 40% of the overall patents.
    • China leads in biotechnology papers produced in the ten-year period with 78,263, followed by India with 24,081 and Brazil with 17,769. It also leads all countries with 149,339 patent families, followed by India with 15,420 and Mexico with 14,574

    As a critical driver of science that boosts food resources, improves nutritional health, and battles environmental pollution, biotechnology is one of the most productive research fields of our time. The report broadly surveys research and development work in biotechnology carried out from 2005 to 2014.

    Bai said the report could be valuable to governments and policymakers, as well as related research sectors, industry sectors and international bodies. He added that CAS and TWAS hope the report will help to nurture a flourishing biotechnology sector in all developing countries and regions.

    “Embracing the great opportunities of the emerging bio-economy, developing countries need to sharpen their awareness, increase their commitment and gradually build their own strength in the dynamic fields of biotechnology,” he writes in a foreword to the report. “Only in that way can they fully exploit its potential to drive economic growth and social development.”

    The report also includes other findings: And East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Region had a particularly strong increase in biotechnology papers. That region also put out the most patents. Within biotechnology, it found, the most published field of research was infectious diseases.

    The report is available online.

    Story by: Sean Treacy for TWAS.ORG

  • Project aims to end 'ambiguity' of plant-based medicine

    Project aims to end 'ambiguity' of plant-based medicine
    2nd Nov 2016

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    A team of scientists at Royal Botanical Gardens Kew has embarked on the mammoth task of creating a single database of the world’s medicinal plant species.

    Our knowledge of beneficial botany is dispersed across many sources, and is complicated with most species having a variety of different names.

    The team at Kew says its work will help pharmacists and regulators, as well as relevant scientific research.

    To date, the resource covers an estimated 18,000 different species.

    “From those 18,000 species of plant, we have something like 90,000 different names that are used within the health community and by regulators,” explained Bob Allkin from Kew’s Medicinal Plant Name Services project (MPNS).

    “They use many different names for the same plant; some of the names are ambiguous, and we have 230,000 scientific names for those plants.”

    What’s in a name?

    He described why there was a need to compile a single reference for the increasingly globalised plant-based medicinal market.

    “Pharmacists have traditionally referred to products in great detail, about how it should be prepared. They would also suggest what plant, and what bit of the plant, it can be derived from, such as just the root or just the leaves,” Dr Allkin told BBC News.

    “However, from a botanical point of view, they have been rather loose about how they referred to the plants; they would have used common names, or they would have used pharmaceutical names.

    “In both cases, those names are used differently in different places. Obviously, language is an issue but even within the English-speaking world, one common name can be used in different ways to mean different plants. This leads to ambiguity.”

    When you are dealing with medicine, ambiguity can result in unacceptable consequences.

    In a high profile incident, more than 100 people in Belgium suffered kidney failure as a result of taking weight-loss pills. Unfortunately, a number of the casualties lost their lives as a result of taking the pills.

    “The reason for this was because one substance was substituted for another because they had a similar name. This shows that there are very serious consequences to not being precise about what plants are being used,” Dr Allkin warned.

    “We are compiling all of the names of the plants as used in herbal medicinal products, as used in [various editions of] pharmacopeia and medical literature. They use a mix of common names, in different languages, they also use what are known as pharmaceutical names – which in many cases are also written in Latin – and they also use scientific names. They use a whole mix of things.”

    There are numerous pharmacopeia (books containing technical instructions to identify compound medicines) – such as the Chinese, Japanese, and European editions – as well as databases used by regulators, such as the US Food and Drug Administration.

    Dr Allkin observed: “We then map those names as used by the regulators and health profession to Kew Garden’s comprehensive and authoritative global plant taxonomies.”

    Identity parade

    He said that in order for regulators to be able to accurately identify what plants are being used, it is necessary to use scientific names.

    “That is the only way because those scientific names are referred to a physical reference in a herbarium store, such as the one at Kew, and those physical specimens tie down what that [scientific] name refers to, as well as its chemical components and DNA etc,” he explained.

    “The problem for people who are not botanists is that there are various obstacles to using the scientific names properly. In the past, botanists have provided wonderful online resources that are useful to other botanists, but not necessarily intelligible to those working in the health sector.”

    However, this presents a problem of its own. Dr Allkin acknowledge that one of the challenges of using scientific nomenclature is that there are many more names than there are plants.

    It is estimated that there are between 360,000 and 400,000 species of flowering plants in the world, yet there are 1.6 million scientific names for plants known to science.

    “Each plant often has multiple scientific names; this is particularly true of useful plants like medicinal plants because they have been well studies and well described, therefore end up having lot of different or alternative names,” Dr Allkin said.

    “We know of one plant in the British pharmacopeia that has more than 500 scientific synonyms.

    “One consequence of that is that it makes it very hard to find all the research that has been published about that plant, as research might have been published under any one of many names.”

    Dr Allkin said that if someone searched for details of previous research of a plant using just one of its names then you – on average – would find about 10% to 15% of the previous reach, meaning you would not find up to 85% of previous scientific work on the plant.

    Another problem is that names keep changing – there are 10,000 changes to scientific nomenclature each year.

    “This is because there are new plants being found, there are about 2,000 of those, and then there are about 4,000 cases each year when a plant is moved from one genus into another genus,” he added.

    “This is done because the molecular or chemical data that becomes available makes us realise that that particular species is much more closely related in another genus rather than the one it current belongs to.

    “Our project is about making Kew’s botanical expertise accessible to all.”

    Story by: for BBC News

  • CSIR researcher receives L'Ore'al-UNESCO Sub-Saharan Africa 2016 Award

    CSIR researcher receives L'Ore'al-UNESCO Sub-Saharan Africa 2016 Award
    17th Oct 2016

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    For the past 18 years, the L’Ore’al-UNESCO for Women in Science (http://www.ForWomenInScience.com) programme has encouraged, promoted and honoured female scientists all over the world. More than 2,500 researchers from 112 countries have been distinguished for their extraordinary discoveries and supported at key moments in their careers.

    Dr Stephanie Fanucchi, senior researcher at the Biomedical Translational Research Initiative (BTRI) – an initiative of the CSIR and the University of Cape Town, funded by the Department of Science and Technology was a recipient of the L’Ore’al-UNESCO Sub-Saharan Africa 2016 postdoctoral fellowship of 10 000 euros.

    Her research uses cutting edge microscopes and synthetic biology tools to understand how immune genes are regulated. The title of her project is deciphering the roles of non-coding RNAs in immune gene regulation, which she will conduct in Prof. Musa Mhlanga’s laboratory, BTRI technical manager.

    “Aberrant gene regulation underpins a multitude of disease states, including autoimmune disease and cancer. Yet, despite this, our understanding of the intricacies of gene regulation remains poorly understood'” says Fanucchi. “Therefore, a detailed understanding of immune gene regulation will have far-reaching implications with respect to our understanding and treatment of cancer, chronic diseases such as diabetes, allergy responses and a host of other diseases and important cellular processes.”

    The prestigious ceremony where fellows were presented with the award took place on 28 September at The Venue Greenpark, Johannesburg.

    Story by Tendani Tsedu for CSIR Media relations, October 2016

     

  • ACGT, WITS and UP’s 2016 iGem team host Synthetic Biology Workshop and Symposium

    ACGT, WITS and UP’s 2016 iGem team host Synthetic Biology Workshop and Symposium
    30th Sep 2016

    In early September, the ACGT teamed up with WITS and UP’s 2016 iGem team to sponsor and host a 2-day informative workshop and symposium on Synthetic Biology. Synthetic biology is a multidisciplinary field of science that involves the design and construction of novel artificial biomolecular components, pathways or networks in organisms or the redesign of existing natural biological systems. Although still in its infancy, Synthetic biology is rapidly expanding and has shown huge potential and benefit  in a diverse number of applications, including the development of cheaper drugs, the treatment of  antibiotic resistant infections, genetic disorders, therapies to treat diseases such as  cancer, biofuel production.

    The 2-day event was well attended and included participants from the CSIR, ARC, UP, WITS and the Department of Environmental Affairs. The workshop was interactive and delegates had the opportunity to hear about and discuss some of activities and approaches in the field that are currently being explored in South America, UK and South Africa. On the first day, a workshop was facilitated by Dr. Fernán Federici, assistant professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and a research fellow at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Federici introduced open source technologies for science, education and bioengineering as well as started open discussions about how to implement new collaborative frameworks in Africa and Latin America. Dr. Geoffrey Baldwin, a Reader in Biochemistry in the Department of Life Sciences and Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) at Imperial College London, also presented on his work on the BASIC method for standard DNA assembly approaches.

    On the second day, delegates were treated to a keynote address by Dr. Baldwin titled:  “Engineering Biology in the Genomic Age: the Synthetic Biology Revolution”  as well a presentation  by the 2016 UP iGEM team on their WattsAptamer project, where they described the design of “Synthetic laccases and DNA aptamers for thylakoid tethering in photo-electrochemical cells”.

    These two events provided an informative platform for an exchange of ideas and interdisciplinary discussions as well as the potential for new collaborations.  The ACGT is committed to supporting and hosting events that benefit Biotechnology and the Bioscience Community, particularly our partners, so for more information on upcoming workshops, symposia and bioinformatics training events, visit the events page on the ACGT website (www.acgt.co.za), like us on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/ACGT.biotec) or contact Farhahna Allie at

    * Thank you to Whitehead Scientific for sponsorship towards these events

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  • International leadership award for Prof Mike Wingfield

    International leadership award for Prof Mike Wingfield
    1st Jun 2016

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    Amongst the most productive scientists of his generation, and possibly ever in the field of forest health. He is an extraordinary scholar, but also an extraordinary leader, mentor, and friend to many scientists around the world.’ This was one of the citations about Prof Mike Wingfield when the announcement was made that he had been awarded the Distinguished Leadership Award for International Scientists for 2016, by his alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

    Prof Wingfield is Professor and Founding Director of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria and also the current President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a worldwide network of more than 15 000 forest scientists with its headquarters based in Austria. He is also an A1-rated National Research Foundation (NRF) researcher.

    This leadership award is bestowed on individuals who distinguished themselves in their post-university work as leaders in their professional careers. Prof Wingfield did the research for his PhD at the University of Minnesota and was awarded the degree in 1983.

    His work on the topic of tree health has been widely published in more than 600 research papers and five books. As an invited speaker he has made numerous highly acclaimed presentations globally.

    Prof Wingfield was elected as a fellow of several scientific societies, including the Royal Society of South Africa, the Academy of Science for South Africa (ASSAf), and the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology and the American Phytopathological Society. He is one of the few honorary members of the Mycological Society of America.

    The prestigious African Union (AU) Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award in the Life and Earth Sciences category was bestowed on Prof Wingfield in Addis Ababa in 2013, and other accolades that he has received include the Johanna Westerdijk Award, awarded by the Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures (CBS) (Fungal Biodiversity Centre, the Netherlands), and honorary DSc degrees from the University of British Columbia in 2012, and from the North Carolina State University in 2013.

    More details about the reasons why he was selected for the award are provided on the website of the University of Minnesota.

    Story by: Martie Meyer, University of Pretoria News.

  • Pulses key in combating hunger and food insecurity

    Pulses key in combating hunger and food insecurity
    26th May 2016

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    As Africa contends with increasing temperatures because of climate change, pulses such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas could hold the key to addressing widespread malnutrition and hunger on the Continent. This was according to food and nutrition experts, who attended a recent International Year of Pulses (IYP2016) conference which was held in Johannesburg. South Africa has joined the rest of the world in celebrating the International Year of Pulses (IYP2016).

    The aim of the Johannesburg conference was to raise public awareness about the importance pulses and how they could be used to address hunger and food insecurity in the continent.

    According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) over 6.3 million people in the drought stricken Southern Africa region could face food shortages.  In South Africa food security has been significantly threatened by soaring food prices as a result of rising inflation and the drought itself.

    Dr Palesa Sekhejane, Research Specialist at Human Sciences Research Council says that Africa suffers from most extreme forms of poverty and food insecurity despite being rich with natural resources and arable land. She said this was mainly due to lack of and implementation of indigenous knowledge.

    Known to be traditional by many, pulses are inexpensive critical source of plant-based proteins and amino acids especially in poorer areas where meat and dairy are economically inaccessible. They are incredibly rich in nutritional value hence many health organisations  around the world recommend eating them as part of a healthy diet to address obesity, to prevent and manage chronic diseases such as

    diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer. The amount of protein found in pulses is double of that found in wheat and four times that of rice.

    Pulses are  described as the world’s most versatile super food  because of their drought resistant nature, pulses such peas, bambara beans and lentils can be cultivated in arid climates that have limited and often erratic rainfall of 300-400 mm/year. To produce 0.5kg, pulses require 160 litres of water compared to 7000 litres for beef and 2800 litres for chicken. If properly stored, pulses remain edible for several years making them a smart option for households without refrigeration.

    Health organisations around the world recommend eating pulses as part of a healthy diet to prevent and help manage obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer.

    Not only are pulses good for human nutrition, they are also good for animals and the environment too. Pulses have nitrogen-fixing properties that can contribute to increased soil fertility and have a positive impact on the environment.

    They promote the below –the-surface biodiversity, as they create a rich home for germs, bugs and bacteria of various kinds necessary for plant growth. Pulses, especially dry peas, can also be used as feedstuff. Complimenting animal feed with improved varieties of pulses has shown to significantly improve animal nutrition too, yielding better livestock, which in turn supports food security.

    A study in West Africa showed that animals fed cowpea hay; along with rice feed meal, during dry season gain 95kg, compared to 62kg for animals that did not receive the cowpea fodder. The manure was also of improved quality and the study estimated that farmers who used cowpea fodder could benefit from an extra 50kg of meat a year and over 300kg of cereal grain from the improved soil quality.

    A reduction in overall pulse consumption trend has been observed and this is attributed to failure of domestic production to keep with population growth in many countries. Increased production of pulses is what Africa needs to counteract the consequences of the current drought.

    In the global context, IYP2016 will complement Sustainable Development Goals 2 (To end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture) and 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages).

    The United Nations (UN) focus year aligns with various other UN initiatives to address poverty, hunger and food insecurity around the world, like the second UN Decade for the Elimination of Poverty (2008-2017), and the UN High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, established in April 2008 to promote a comprehensive and unified response to the challenge of achieving global food security.

    Story by: The Department of Science and Technology, © 2011 – Current, Department: Science & Technology, Republic of South Africa.  All rights reserved.

  • Traditional knowledge to enhance modern medicine

    20th May 2016

    Prof Namrita Lall of the Department of Plant Science in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP), is bringing science and traditional knowledge together and making it accessible to the modern market by tapping into South Africa’s diverse pool of plant life and making it available for medicinal and cosmeceutical use. Prof Lall is one of only a few UP researchers to have a product available on the commercial market.

    An estimated 20 000 plant species are used medicinally today and a number of the ingredients used in modern medicine to treat serious diseases originate from plant-based traditional medicine. Despite the fact that it constitutes only 2% of the world’s land surface, South Africa is one of only 17 countries worldwide that is considered mega-diverse in terms of its plant life, with more than 25 000 different indigenous plant species, or about 10% of all the known plant species on Earth. South Africa is therefore a prime location for Prof Lall’s work.

    Prof Lall has been studying medicinal plants for more than 20 years, using science to prove their efficacy, and has thereby validated traditional knowledge. Plant-based medicine is in huge demand in Europe, which has encouraged Prof Lall to use her knowledge and research findings to satisfy the demand. Though the process of testing plants for beneficial properties is often delayed by a lack of resources and time, Prof Lall has successfully completed the process for a number of plants that are now ready for commercialisation.

    The medicinal plant Ceratonia siliqua, commonly known as the carob tree or St John’s bread, is now being used by Carina Franck in one of South Africa’s top organic skin-care ranges, Kalahari. Prof Lall has discovered a number of other plants that can be used for the effective treatment of skin conditions, ranging from pigmentation abnormalities and wrinkles to acne, and is waiting for their permits to be finalised before they, too, can be commercialised. Other products developed by Prof Lall include an effective mouthwash for periodontal diseases, as well as chemo-preventative skincare, hepato-protective and immune-modulatory products.

    Prof Lall explains that plants are selected in two ways, namely through ethno-botanical selection or through phytochemistry. The ethno-botanical approach is where plants used by indigenous communities for traditional purposes – for instance, for food and medicine – are tested to see if they have medicinal value. ‘The phytochemistry approach is where we use existing knowledge about the chemical substances found in specific plants. If we know a plant is rich in a specific chemical compound that could be of medicinal or cosmeceutical use, we isolate that compound and run trials to determine its usability,’ she says.

    Through her work, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has identified a flagship project focussed on using traditional knowledge on plants for pharmaceutical and cosmetic uses. Prof Lall says this is one of the most exciting parts of her work. Not only are students getting degrees, but the research also benefits humankind. ‘I am very interested in community work. For instance, my postgraduate students and I are involved in a project in Mamelodi where we are helping farmers to cultivate plants that can be used for medicinal purposes. In fact, the communities where we work are always involved and will no doubt benefit from the results once some of these projects become economically viable,’ she explains.

    Working so intimately with traditional knowledge does require delicacy and patience. The process of securing intellectual property rights and other legalities are the main factors that delay commercialisation of a product and getting it onto the market. While Prof Lall has already patented a number of plants, sourcing the community from which the knowledge originated in order for them to benefit can be challenging.  After 11 years of trying to get products onto the market, however, Prof Lall is optimistic that now that the process is in place, progress will be faster. She has already received the permits for plants that were selected from UP’s own gardens and the resulting products can be used to treat skin pigmentation abnormalities and for chemo-preventative skin-care. Encouragingly, Prof Lall is the first researcher at UP to receive a bioprospecting permit for two types of plant.

    It is very exciting to think about the potential of Prof Lall’s work. Her outstanding research findings will be beneficial on a number of levels, from the growing link between academia and industry, to enriching the lives of rural communities and improving the well-being of the people who use these products.

    In April 2016, the University celebrated Prof Lall’s achievements by holding an exhibition to showcase some of the products she helped to develop.

    Prof Lall’s accolades include the following:

    • She is ranked in the top 1% of the global Essential Science Indicators list of influential academics who write about pharmacology and toxicology.
    • In 2014, she received the Order of Mapungubwe – South Africa’s highest honour – from President Jacob Zuma, in recognition of her research.
    • She was a finalist in the 2014 National Science and Technology Forum Award in the category that recognises outstanding contributions made by researchers over the past 10 years.
    • She was a winner of the 2002 UNESCO-L’Oreal Award for Women in Science.

    Story by: Louise de Bruin, University of Pretoria News.