Mushrooms by the Numbers: A SABINA Master's in Bioinformatics

Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom. –Thomas Carlyle

Ms Liberata Mwita
Ms Liberata Mwita

Highly valued as a tasty, low-calorie, and nutrient-rich food staple, mushrooms have been consumed for millennia by people around the world. The varieties of mushrooms eaten today are grown on farms or collected in the wild. In addition to their value as food, mushrooms have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, especially in China, and since the 1960s, scientists in other nations have become increasingly interested in studying extracts from mushrooms to assess their antibacterial, antifungal, and potentially even anticancer compounds.

Liberata Mwita, a RISE-SABINA student working toward her master’s degree at the University of Dar es Salaam, is using the modern techniques of biotechnology and bioinformatics to identify bioactive compounds for mushrooms and enhance traditional uses. Liberata is working on Coprinus, a genus of wild mushroom that has been domesticated for its food value and is also known to have bioactive compounds. While it is widely used as food, it hasn’t been used for medicinal purposes, despite its potential applications. Not surprisingly, the genome of the Tanzanian strain of Coprinus has not yet been sequenced, so Liberata’s research will be an immediately useful addition to current biomedical knowledge.

Tall and well-spoken, with a brilliant smile, Liberata Mwita comes only recently to her place in bioinformatics. As a little girl, the eldest of four children born to Tanzanian medical doctors in Lindi, Tanzania, she urgently wanted to be a pilot. Liberata credits her parents with inspiring and gradually guiding her toward her standout academic work in science. She also speaks highly of her advisors, Dr. Sylvester Lyantagaye at the University of Dar es Salaam and Professor Oleg Reva at the University of Pretoria, for taking her under their wings and giving generously of their time.

At the beginning of her master’s studies, Liberata was given the opportunity to go to South Africa from February to November 2010. She began with a seven-week crash course in bioinformatics at the Center for Computing at Cape Biotech, in Cape Town, and then moved on to the University of Pretoria to work with the state-of-the-art instrumentation and software available there. (She used the same kinds of instruments used by pharmaceutical companies, which is extremely expensive and unavailable to researchers at her home university in Dar es Salaam.

Conventional drug discovery and development can be a ten-year process, from selecting materials to study through producing and clinically testing an end product, but recent developments in biotechnology and computer science, like those Liberata is learning, enable modern scientists to significantly reduce that timeline. When we visited Liberata at UDSM in June 2011, she had wrapped up her work from South Africa and begun cultivating Coprinus cinereus to verify her computational work. The amount of bioinformatics research taking place in Tanzania is small and concentrated, so the addition of Liberata’s expertise guarantees a meaningful impact on her field.

After Liberata has earned her master’s degree in biotechnology (she hopes to finish by January 2012), she will apply to join the university staff. This will require a formal application process, including the approval of the government of Tanzania, which has a say in university appointments. With her excellent training and her unique set of skills, Liberata Mwita has every hope of becoming an asset to the higher education community in Tanzania.

Story: Loris Mulcare (Science Initiative Group (SIG) Blog, October 2011)