Wood has been essential to mankind for thousands of years for building, as fuel, for making tools, and for a myriad of other purposes. In recent times, its usefulness has changed. It is also used for things like the production of purified cellulose and its derivatives, such as cellophane. But how do trees form wood? More specifically, how do Eucalyptus or gum trees form their wood as they grow and mature under different circumstances and conditions? Such questions will be answered through research to be conducted through the newly established Hans Merensky Research Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalyptus Wood Formation (or EucXylo). Based in the Department of Wood and Forestry Sciences at Stellenbosch University, EucXylo is funded by the Hans Merensky Foundation.
The contract formalising the ten year-initiative was signed in May 2019 by Dr Khotso Mokhele, president of the board of trustees of the Hans Merensky Foundation, and Prof Eugene Cloete, vice-rector: research, innovation and postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University.
The lead researcher is Dr David Drew, Senior Lecturer in the SU Department of Forest and Wood Science (DFWS). He will collaborate closely with scientists in the Faculties of Agrisciences and Science at SU, along with a number of leading international researchers.
The initiative provides co-funding for new laboratory facilities and research equipment in the Department of Forest and Wood Science, and allows for the appointment of a new technical staff member. The first group of postdoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows to be supported through the Chair is expected to commence their work in 2020. In the first five-year phase, six postgraduate students (M.Sc. and PhD) will be funded along with at least two postdoctoral fellows.
Xylogenesis, or the formation of wood
According to Dr Drew, the process by which trees form wood is of global significance and cannot be under-estimated.
“Wood formation, technically known as xylogenesis, is fundamental to the fixing of carbon dioxide into the stable, valuable and beautiful material we call wood, and to the production of our planet's increasingly important renewable timber resources," he explains.
According to Dr Drew, xylogenetic studies are a niche field of research pursued by only a relatively small number of scientists internationally. Most of them work in the northern hemisphere on poplar, softwood species and small “model" plant species.
He says there are very good reasons why the research chair focuses on eucalypts in particular: “Eucalyptus or gum trees are arguably the world's most widely planted hardwood forest species. Its wood is used for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from pulp to solid wood for construction.
Dr Drew says that great progress has been made in South Africa by colleagues at the University of Pretoria on the molecular genetics of wood formation in eucalypts.
“In our program, however, we will focus on understanding and modelling the processes of wood formation of Eucalyptus in the context of the physiology of the whole plant," he notes.
He adds that the research chair is in keeping with the inspiring legacy of geologist and agricultural pioneer Dr Hans Merensky. After successfully locating many large mineral deposits across South Africa (including diamonds, platinum and gold), he successfully established commercial plantations of Eucalyptus in especially the northern parts of the country.
Work done through the EucXylo Chair will aim to develop an evolving, inter-connected set of models of how Eucalyptus wood forms. Studies into the factors that influence wood formation will, among other foci, explore how trees respond to periodic cycles of drought.
“This will be done through a range of projects by postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and academics that will employ cutting edge, high precision measurement techniques, combined with intensive sampling and laboratory analyses," explains Dr Drew. “These insights will be the basis by which researchers in the project continually build and improve predictive models at multiple scales."
He says the models will be incorporated into a software-based simulation framework, which is envisaged to become a platform for scientific collaboration and the generation of new hypotheses and ideas within South Africa and around the world.
Background about Dr David Drew:
- Dr David Drew is an alumnus of the Department of Forest and Wood Sciences at Stellenbosch University, having received the degree BSc (Forest Science) in 1999.
- While working for the Council for Science and Industrial Research (CSIR) Dr Drew completed his MSc (Biology) at the (then) University of Natal. It was in this research that his passion was sparked for wood formation.
- He received a PhD from Monash University in Australia in 2009 for research that described and predicted variations in temporal growth and wood properties in Eucalyptus trees.
- He joined the staff of Stellenbosch University to lecture forest management in 2015, after working for several years as a research scientist in Hobart (Tasmania) at CSIRO, Australia's national science agency.
- The Hans Merensky Foundation was set up in 1949 by geologist and agriculturalist Dr Hans Merensky to realise his charitable objectives. For more information: www.hmfoundation.co.za.
- The Department of Forest and Wood Sciences at Stellenbosch University is the only university in South Africa offering a comprehensive four-year BSc degree programme in both Forest Science and Wood Product Science, thus covering the entire forestry value chain. It is also the only tertiary institution in South Africa providing an educational offering at BSc, MSc and PhD levels in both Forest and Natural Resource and Wood Products Science. The Department strives to produce versatile managers and researchers for the wood processing and timber growing industries with the skills to manage and understand all the intricacies of technology transfer.