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  • Grand Challenges in Global Health – GC9 meeting in Beijing, China

    22nd June 2009

    Drs Rachel Chikwamba (Principal Investigator of the Africa Biofortified Sorghum project) and Maretha O’Kennedy – both from CSIR Biosciences – recently participated in the Grand Challenges in Global Health, GC9 meeting in Beijing, China from 8 to 11 May 2009.

    The goal of the six-monthly research update meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation GC9 project teams was to build mutual understanding of plant science and nutrition goals and efforts and to share highlights of GC9 research programmes to create nutritionally complete staple crops. The meeting placed specific emphasis on Golden Rice, Africa Biofortified Sorghum, BioCassava Plus Programme and Banana Biofortification.

    Representatives of the Gates Foundation commended the research teams for their superlative research output over the last three years. Featured highlights included the HarvestPlus China Showcase which included leaders from the Chinese agriculture, plant science and nutrition fields. A new initiative from the National Science Foundation (NSF) also announced partnership with Gates Foundation to foster sustainable agricultural solutions around the world.

    The Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) Program presented by Prof Deborah Delmer – NSF program director for BREAD, will support basic research to build a foundation for generating sustainable, science-based solutions to problems of agriculture in developing countries, testing innovative hypotheses leading to novel and creative approaches and technologies. The Program, which is a continuation of ongoing activities funded under the Plant Genome Research Program, will be supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through funding provided to NSF.

  • ACGT hosts visit by senior SABINA participants from University of Malawi

    21st June 2009

    From 9-12 June 2009, the ACGT hosted visitors from the University of Malawi as part of the Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products (SABINA) network programme. The recently appointed SABINA Project Manager, Dr Frank Ngonda and Academic Director, Dr John Saka, were both in attendance.

    The visit began with a dinner for SABINA participants that was held on 9 June. Dr Ngonda used the remainder of the four-day visit as an opportunity to meet with SABINA participants and students at the CSIR, Wits University and University of Pretoria. Two new calls for Masters and PhD, and post-doctoral SABINA scholarships were also announced, respectively.

    Before joining SABINA, Frank Ngonda was responsible for the coordination and management of the HIV and AIDS programmes at district and community levels and as Programme Officer for Malawi Traditional Healers Umbrella Organization – a project under the Ministry of Health, Clinical Services. He was involved in the creation and strengthening of collaboration between Biomedical Health Practitioners and Traditional Health Practitioners, which included co-ordination of programmes such as the development of proposals, tools, protocols, guidelines and structures of the collaboration.

  • e-Research seminar and workshop held at the CSIR

    16th June 2009

    The African Digital Scholarship and Curation Conference held at the CSIR International Conference Centre from 12 – 14 May 2009, attracted a number of international leaders in the field of e-Research to South Africa. In order to capitalise on this opportunity, the University of Pretoria (Prof Robin Crewe: Vice-Principal) and the CSIR (Dr Thulani Dlamini: Group Executive: R&D), under the ambit of the SERA Alliance, co-hosted a pre-conference seminar-workshop on e-Research at the CSIR Knowledge Commons. Representing ACGT were Prof. Jane Morris and Prof. Braam Louw.

    The seminar-workshop served as a platform for local and overseas e-Research role-players to rub shoulders and share lessons and experiences. It is envisaged that lessons learnt by the local e-Research role-players will serve as input into the review and mobilisation of the South African e-Research blue print. In addition, delegates at the seminar-workshop brain stormed around South Africa’s e-Research direction. Emphasis in that discussion was placed on:

      • Crafting the vision; (key elements to consider)
      • Critical requirements for success
      • Infrastructure requirements for collaborative environments
      • Intellectual Property, security, data-preservation and curation

    Seminar organisers, presenters and delegates indicated that they were content with the quality of dialogue and knowledge-exchange that took place at the workshop. The local e-Research role-players expressed their satisfaction with the confidence afforded to them to map-out and implement a collaborative programme to benefit the SA research community.

    The workshop’s outputs will be vital for the inclusive development of a strategic e-Research framework. Among others, the framework – which will paint a five to 10 year e-Research scenario for South Africa – will advocate for adequate e-Research funding, resources and governance locally. It will also address issues surrounding South Africa’s e-Research technology-backbone, and services required for effective and efficient linkages to similar users and providers locally and abroad

    The seminar-workshop proceedings were facilitated by Awie Vlok, of the CSIR Innovation Leadership and Learning Academy.

  • DST supports tree genomics and bioenergy initiative at UP

    22nd May 2009

    By Prof Zander Myburg

    The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has awarded a strategic grant of R1.5 million to a team of UP researchers in support of a project to decipher the complete transcriptome (DNA sequence of all expressed genes) of a Eucalyptus tree and to produce a high-density molecular marker map of the genome of this tree. Fast-growing eucalypt trees are viewed as future bioenergy crops due to their ability to produce vast amounts of energy-rich lignocellulosic materials. They are already utilized as fibre crops for pulp, paper and cellulose in South Africa. The UP research team led by Prof. Zander Myburg in the Department of Genetics and Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) in collaboration with the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Unit at UP (directed by Prof. Fourie Joubert) is generating a complete catalogue of expressed genes for a South African bred eucalypt tree.

    In addition to expanding their understanding of the molecular basis of wood and fibre formation in trees, this project will allow Prof. Myburg’s team to discover thousands of DNA markers that can be used for the genetic improvement of eucalypt trees in South Africa. This work is further supported by Sappi, Mondi, the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Program (THRIP) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) through the Wood and Fibre Molecular Genetics (WFMG) programme at UP.

    The DST funding also provides support for the leadership role of UP in an international project to sequence the complete genome of a Eucalyptus tree. The United States Department of Energy (US-DOE) announced in 2007 that it will fund a project to sequence the genome of Eucalyptus grandis, a fast-growing forest plantation tree species which it considers a potential bioenergy crop. This will only be the second forest tree genome to be sequenced after that of the poplar tree. Prof. Myburg is the principal investigator and UP the lead partner organization for this international project.

  • International Organization for Standards (ISO) Council Task Force on Biotechnology participation

    20th May 2009

    Jane Morris participated in a meeting of the International Organization for Standards (ISO) Council Task Force on Biotechnology in Geneva on 29th and 30th April, on behalf of SABS (South African Bureau of Standards). The Task Force is made up of representatives from 9 different countries, and was tasked with identifying areas of biotechnology where standardization is needed. Previously there has been no major focus on biotechnology standards in ISO. The recommendations from the meeting will be forwarded to the ISO Council for follow-up action.

  • ACGT exemplifies the power of collaboration in boosting biotech innovation in Africa

    22nd July 2008

    The ACGT was recently represented by its Director, Prof Jane Morris, at the launch of the Innovation for Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction towards an Enabling Environment for Systems of Innovation of Southern Africa (ISP-TEESA) in Windhoek, Namibia from 22 to 25 June.

    ISP-TEESA is a programme of the Regional Agricultural and Environmental Initiatives Network – Africa (RAEIN-AFRICA) and aims to develop, promote and harmonise science, technology and innovation polices in the region, build a pool of human capacity resources for scientific research and technological development and also promote public understanding in the areas of science, technology and innovation.

    Prof Morris’ keynote address, titled ‘Innovation Systems in Biotechnology – Addressing Africa’s challenges’, spoke to the development of innovation systems and how to use biotechnology to sustainably address the needs of the poor. Central to her presentation was the description of what she has termed as ‘Africa’s dilemma’. According to Prof Morris, biotechnology innovation so far has not occurred in Africa to any major extent. Among the factors contributing to this are a lack of sufficient long-term investment by governments in R&D; a relatively underdeveloped private sector; limited purchasing power and access to markets; and some reluctance to adapt and adopt technologies developed elsewhere in the world.

    She says that in an increasingly internationalised and competitive world, the needs of the poor have to be addressed in the context of major global trends. The major social, environmental and economic challenges in Africa will require radical, rather than incremental, innovation. “If we are going to make biotechnology work in Africa, we have to develop completely new innovation systems. If we don’t do that, we will basically be left sitting on the sidelines”.

    According to her, 5th and 6th generation innovation – the space in which the ACGT plays – require the creation of collaborative networks, partnerships and social relations in order to stimulate knowledge innovation. The ACGT itself is an example of the use of collaboration to build innovation, she says. Activities such as participation in the Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products (SABINA) network programme and the current capacity audit being undertaken within ACGT partner and affiliate organisations demonstrate the importance of partnerships and cross-boundary collaboration.

    The SABINA network includes the three ACGT partner institutions as well as the University of Malawi, University of Namibia and University of Dar es Salaam, while the capacity audit covers the CSIR, University of Pretoria, Wits University, and ACGT affiliate institutions – the Universities of Johannesburg and Limpopo. The latter initiative is being undertaken with the aim of identifying potential areas for collaboration and the availability of equipment within each institution to the other institutions. In addition, the capacity audit will be a key input to a needs analysis process that will identify whether there are common issues that exist and that the five institutions can work together to address.

    “While the core focus of the audit has been on advanced biotechnology, we have now spread into the broader area of biosciences and life sciences in general, as very often we apply advanced technologies in other areas. If we can harness and bring together this varied expertise, we greatly increase the potential to create more innovative solutions”, says Prof Morris.

  • ACGT partner institutions in successful bid for a Carnegie-IAS Regional Initiative in Science and Education

    21st July 2008

    The Carnegie-IAS Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE aims to develop human capacity through science and technology training and research in a regional context in sub-Saharan Africa, enabling individuals to use Science and Technology to contribute to national and regional economic development. This will be done by preparing PhD- and MSc-level scientists and engineers in sub-Saharan Africa through university-based research and training networks in selected disciplines. Its primary emphases are on training new faculty to teach in African universities and on upgrading current faculty.

    RISE is administered by the Science Initiative Group in partnership with the African Academy of Sciences.

    In an intense competition that attracted 48 proposals from 29 African countries, the proposal “Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products” (SABINA), was among the three networks selected by an international panel of distinguished scientists.

    SABINA was selected because of its competence to combine the strongest science with the greatest potential to have a positive impact on faculty development across the region.

    The SABINA network aims to train both PhD and MSc scientists from 2009 onwards, through research in the biochemistry and chemistry of natural products, including bioinformatics as an essential tool for data management and the elucidation of structure and function.

    In 2009, SABINA will recruit and support three PhD and three MSc students. In the subsequent years, it is anticipated that three new PhD and three new MSc students will enter the programme each year.

    Research will focus on increasing the understanding of useful plants or fungi (such as mushrooms, and tea crops) through the study of screening assays, biosynthetic pathways, gene expression, modes of action, synthetic production, and genetic diversity. Nonetheless, the specific research projects selected for the MSc and PhD students will be determined based on ongoing research in the partner institutions, and will be tailored to the previous scientific background of those students.

    The institutions participating in the SABINA network program are:

    The involvement of the South African institutions will be coordinated through the office of the ACGT.

    The Academic Director of the SABINA network is Professor John DK Saka, of the Department of Chemistry in india.

    For more information please contact Prof E Jane Morris, .

  • ACGT success reflected in the latest publication records

    22nd June 2008

    The ACGT has been mentioned under authors’ affiliation in a variety of publications over the last 12 months. These include the following articles:

      • Berger, D.K., Crampton, B.G., Hein, I. and Vos, W Screening of cDNA Libraries on Glass Slide Microarrays. Methods in Molecular Biology 382 177-203 (2007).
      • Birkholtz, L,. van Brummelen A.C,. Clark K, Niemand J, Maréchal E, Llinás M and Louw A.I. Exploring functional genomics for drug target and therapeutics discovery in Plasmodia Acta Tropica 105 (2), 113-123 (2008).
      • Clark, K., Dhoogra, M., Birkholtz, L. and Louw, A.I. Transcriptional responses of Plasmodium falciparum to a-difluoromethylornithine-induced polyamine depletion. Biological Chemistry. 389(2), 111-125 (2008).
      • Crampton, B.G., Law, P., Coetzer, N.,Vos W. and Berger, D. K. Can genomics and bioinformatics be applied to studies of non-model plants such as pearl millet? South African Journal of Botany, 73 (2),279 (2007).
      • Law, P.J., Claudel-Renard C., Joubert, F., Louw,A.I. and Berger. D.K. MADIBA: A web server toolkit for biological interpretation of Plasmodium and plant gene clusters. BMC Genomics 9:105 (2008)
      • Morris, E.J. The Cartagena Protocol: Implications for regional trade, research and technology development in Africa. Development Policy Review, 26(1), 29-57 (2008).
      • Virgin, I., Bhagavan, M., Komen, J., Kullaya, A., Louwaars, N., Morris, E.J., Okori, P. and Persley, G. Agricultural Biotechnology and Small-scale Farmers in Eastern and Southern Africa. Stockholm Environment Institute Working Paper. ISBN 978-91-976022-1-1 (2007).

    Many more publications from the CSIR, University of Pretoria and University of the Witwatersrand reflect the application of gene technologies in the partner institutions.

  • ACGT Represented on NEPAD SANBio Plant Genetic Resource Task Force

    21st June 2008

    NEPAD Southern African Network forBiosciences (SANBio) has established a Task Force on the Enhancement of Capabilities of Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources in Southern Africa. The first meeting of this task force was held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, on 2-3 June 2008.

    The objective of the task force is to assist in the development of a five year regional project to “enhance the capabilities of conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources in southern Africa”. This is one of the priority projects identified by the region aimed at ensuring sustainable food security and socioeconomic development of the people of the region.

    The ACGT was represented at the meeting by Dr Jane Morris (ACGT Director) and Dr Ereck Chakauya (CSIR). Representatives were also present from gene banks in the SADC region.

    The meeting participants noted that Conservation of plant genetic resources was a fast expanding field, especially with the advent of climate change, biotechnology and HIV/AIDS.· In order to fully safeguard our plant genetic resources it was recognized that there is a strong need to adopt new and robust technologies, including biotechnology, micropropagation, GIS, non destructive ways of determining moisture, cryostorage, molecular diagnostics, DNA Banking, bioinformatics, etc.

    The meeting offered opportunities for presentations on the possible role of the ACGT and the CSIR in a gene banking initiative, with particular focus on DNA banking and bioinformatics, and the link between these and plant biotechnology research.

    It was agreed that the Task Force should adopt a tight timetable for the development of a detailed project proposal. This process would be led by the SADC Plant Genetic Resource Centre (Ms. T Lupupa) and UKZN (Prof. Pat Berjak) as Project Coordinator and Deputy Coordinator respectively.

    At the end of the meeting, participants were taken on a tour of the laboratory facilities at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

  • ACGT Travel Awards 2008

    20th June 2008

    A number of travel awards were granted to young scientists in the ACGT partner institutions to enable them to travel to learn new techniques and upgrade their skills in the gene technologies.

    The recipients of these awards are as follows:

    Dr Tina Kresfelder, post-doc in the Dept of Medical Virology, UP. Visit to the Netherlands to learn techniques for the study of identify genetic polymorphisms that may be associated with severe respiratory disease in South African children.

    Dr Amadi Ihunwo, School of Anatomical Sciences, Wits University. Partial funding for visit to Germany to learn stereology techniques in brain research for adult neural stem cell transplantation.

    Riann Naguran, PhD student at Wits, based at NICD. Receive training in microarray data analysis from the ACGT microarray facility at UP, for analysis of molecular mechanisms of insecticide resistance in malaria mosquitoes.

    Charlotte Mashaba, MSc student, CSIR Biosciences. Attendance of the 2nd annual proteomics and genomics conference on 3-5 March 2008 at University of Western Cape.

    Jacqueline Brown, Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology, Wits University. Visit to Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT to learn techniques for the analysis of copy number data from Affymetrix microarrays for oesophageal cancer.