Prof Piet Steyn, emeritus professor in organic chemistry and former senior director of research at Stellenbosch University (SU), is the recipient of the Royal Society of South Africa's (RSSAf) Marloth medal for 2020, in recognition of “a highly distinguished career in advancing his discipline, organic chemistry, in the service of science and mankind".
According to a media release from the RSSA, Prof Steyn's contributions to the field of biologically active natural products, mainly mycotoxins and some plant-derived toxins, are legendary. During his research career at the CSIR, the University of the North West and SU, he contributed significantly to the isolation, characterisation, biosynthesis, degradation and analysis of several of these naturally occurring toxins.
Mycotoxins pose an enormous threat to international trade, with an estimated 60% of Africa's grain supplies at risk of fungal contamination and mycotoxin formation. For the USA's grain industry, the estimated annual loss due to mycotoxin contamination amounts to about $2 billion.
Prof Steyn's research endeavours established him as a global leader in this field, and in 2004 he was honoured by the Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures in the Netherlands for his Ochratoxin A research by having a highly toxigenic strain named after him, namely Aspergillus steynii. In 1973 he was appointed as a member of the Food Contaminants Commission of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and in 2002 he became the first scientist from Africa to be elected as President of IUPAC. His international standing contributed to his selection as President of the International Association of Cereal Science and Technology (ICC) and to his service on the scientific advisory boards of many scientific journals. In 1993 the ICC acknowledged his stewardship by awarding him with the coveted Friedrich Schweitzer Medal.
In 2011 he received the prestigious National Order of Mapungubwe in recognition of his contributions to the chemistry and biosynthesis of mycotoxins.
More about Prof Steyn's career
Prof Steyn was born in Vryburg in North West Province in 1940. In 1959 he enrolled at Stellenbosch University for a BSc degree, and in 1963 he completed an MSc in organic chemistry (cum laude) under Prof Chris Garbers, professor in organic chemistry (1958-1978) and later president of the CSIR (1980-1990). Prof Steyn spent most of his career at the CSIR (1964-1993), where he became the founding director of Foodtek, the current Division of Biosciences. After a stint as SASOL Professor of Chemistry at North West University (1993-1999), he became director and later senior director of research at SU (1999-2008). During this time he was closely involved with the establishment and development of the Central Analytical Facilities (CAF) at SU. He is married to fellow chemistry student, Margot Steyn, and they have 3 children and 5 grandchildren.
More about the Marloth Medal
The medal is in honour of the chemist and botanist Professor Hermann Wilhelm Rudolf Marloth (1855-1931), as well as his son Dr Raimund Hilmar Marloth, whose passion was Pomology, the study and farming of fruit trees. Both father and son were Fellows of the Society (appointed in 1908 and 1957 respectively) and continued their legacies by leaving significant bequests to the RSSA.