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Department at “forefront of academic evolution" in genetics
Author: Jorisna Bonthuys
Published: 14/05/2018

Scientists working in the Faculty of AgriSciences are helping to pave the way for genetic research and its future applications, both locally and globally. 

This is the view of Willem Botes who recently delivered a memorial lecture titled “The domestication of inheritance: A tale of academic evolution’’ on the subject as part of the Faculty’s centenary celebrations. 

In his lecture, Botes reflected on a century of genetic research at Stellenbosch University (SU) as well as the individuals who have helped drive the evolution in genetic research on campus. Botes is the research leader of the SU’s Plant Breeding Laboratory in the Department of Genetics. 

The department’s origins can be traced back a century to when the Stellenbosch College of Agriculture was founded on the outskirts of Stellenbosch in 1918, he pointed out. At the time, under the leadership of Prof JH Neethling, the focus was on plant breeding to support agriculture in the region. Since then, many other scientists have followed suit to establish SU as a centre of breeding and genetic research excellence. 

“There has also been an evolution in SU’s genetic research focus, output and training, and an explosion in scientific knowledge and its applications over the century,” he indicated. 

“Over the last century, the department’s work evolved from mainly plant and animal breeding to a strong focus on molecular genetics and genomics, as well as plant biotechnology over the last few decades. As a result, the department’s staff and student component have grown exponentially over recent decades.” Adding human genetics to its curricula in 1989 is considered one of the key changes affecting the research focus and teaching in the department over the last century. 

Currently, the department’s focus areas are plant, animal and human genetics. This includes research in the fields of quantitative (breeding and biometry), molecular (biotechnological) and population genetics. The department’s research is also widely applied in the agricultural sector, biodiversity conservation and management, human diseases, and medicine. 

“In human genetics, the last 100 years have been a tale of growth, collaboration and African-centred representation at SU,” Botes indicated. “Research (in the department) now focuses on identification and molecular characterisation of the genes involved in psychiatric disorders, as well as pharmacogenetic applications in diseases. The department is also doing work on anxiety and stress disorders as well as metabolic disorders, among others. This includes population genetic research for the fine-tuning of underlying complex genetic underpinnings in unique Sub-Saharan African populations.” 

In animal genetics, research is conducted on aquatic and other livestock animals. This involves determining genetic diversity and population dynamics for better management and conservation of these species. The molecular breeding and biodiversity research group in the department also focuses on molecular population- and quantitative genetics. This has applications in biodiversity conservation, fisheries management, insect pest management, animal and plant breeding, aquaculture and forensics, among others. 

In plant genetics and biotechnology, research is under way on developing virus resistance, rye and triticale breeding, cereal genomics as well as plant-insect interactions and fruit breeding. “SU’s genetic research also remains at the forefront of breeding crops for the future, including through its wheat, triticale and rye breeding programmes,” he said. 

“While it maintains a key role in the local sector, the department also ensures that its research remains competitive. An approach to embracing relevant technologies remains vital.” 

The challenges posed by the global food supply will, for instance, continue to steer agriculture towards technological innovations to provide enough and appropriate crops in a changing climate. At the same time, new developments create further questions and opportunities for genetic research. Biotechnology, genomics and genetic enhancement are employed to help improve crop varieties. 

The department is constantly adapting its teaching and research capabilities, he indicated. “The evolution of the department is a tale of growth, collaboration and striving towards academic excellence,” he said. “We are keeping up with global trends and, in some cases, even leading internationally. Genetic studies are providing the key to unlocking an ever-expanding world of scientific possibilities and applications in our everyday lives.  

“Since its start, the department has been at the cutting edge of research and teaching. This is a proud legacy we can build on in the future.”

Pictures: Anton Jordaan