UKZN Scientist Featured in Book on Biotechnology Excellence in Africa
Professor Mark Laing of the Discipline of Plant Pathology in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) is featured in a Public Understanding of Biotechnology’s (PUB) book, titled: Blazing a Biotechnology Trail: Celebrating Biotechnology Excellence in Africa.
The book was published to celebrate 10 years of the programme in 2013 and to highlight the work of individuals in South Africa who contribute to the advancement of biotechnology. Minister Naledi Pandor of the Department of Science and Technology signed presentation copies of the book.
The book is a “Who’s Who” of both established and up-and-coming researchers in South Africa working in the fields of Agriculture, Industry and Environment, Health and Communication on biotechnology-related projects.
Nominations for inclusion were made last year and nominees were considered and chosen by a panel of leading biotechnologists in South Africa. The publication seeks to promote awareness about biotechnology work being done in the country as well as combatting misconceptions about the work of biotechnologists, particularly in realms such as plant breeding or genomics and associated concerns in terms of genetic modification.
The PUB programme was set up in the context of the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) National Biotechnology Strategy launched in 2001 to encourage South Africa’s engagement with and progression in newer biotechnology developments, particularly in the field of genetics and genomic sciences. The initiative recognised the potential of biotechnology to make significant contributions to major national priorities, such as the combatting of the HIV and AIDS pandemic and the pursuit of food security and sustainability enhanced by biotechnological developments.
As an update to this strategy, the Department of Science and Technology launched its Bio-economy Strategy, which is aimed at advancing the development of South Africa's natural biological resources into products with commercial value. The Bio-economy Strategy is intended to pick up in the area of buy-in from government and combine this support with the scientific drive to advance biotechnology.
Laing, who was the only UKZN staff member to be included in the publication, was featured for his work in the plant breeding sector where he is focusing on the breeding of African food security and biofuels crops, and in Plant Pathology in the field of biological control, including the post-harvest citrus diseases which impact on the profitability and viability of South Africa’s citrus exports.
Laing works with an industry partner, Plant Health Products, to ensure that effective and affordable biocontrol products end up in the hands of commercial and small-scale farmers across Africa, using “friendly” microbes to solve pest and disease problems.
At the launch of the publication in Johannesburg, Laing spoke on the training of plant breeders at UKZN to breed new crop cultivars to improve food security and crop productivity. This training is done through the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), a centre at SAEES that was established in 2002 through funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), which has so far trained 56 PhD students from 14 African countries, who have between them released 120 new cultivars with improved features intended to be adopted in their home countries.
As Director of the Centre, Laing is passionate about seeing plant breeders using biotechnology to improve the lives of those in their home countries through their innovative work in plant breeding.