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Jill Farrant

Raising the dead: SA scientist honoured for drought-tolerant crop research

An earlier article on UCT’s Professor Jill Farrant notes that in 40 years time, as people sit down to a bowl of cornflakes at breakfast time, they might just want to close their eyes and offer thanks to this South African scientist. Farrant’s work on developing drought-resistant plants could have a profound impact on the world as climate change affects agriculture – and it is for this reason that Farrant has been selected as the African/Arab laureate for the 2012 L’Oréal-Unesco Awards in Life Sciences. Every year it recognises five exceptional women scientists from around the world, from hundreds of nominations.

In 1970, when Prof Jill Farrant was nine years old, she was amazed when a dead plant she had found on some flat rocks down by the river on her family farm in Limpopo came mysteriously back to life after it rained.

Unbeknown to Farrant, she had discovered a resurrection plant — plants that can lose 95% of their water, becoming dry, dormant, seed-like things, and then return to life. But it wasn’t until 1994, as a postdoctoral researcher, that she made these plants her focus.

Unbeknown to Farrant, she had discovered a resurrection plant — plants that can lose 95% of their water, becoming dry, dormant, seed-like things, and then return to life. But it wasn’t until 1994, as a postdoctoral researcher, that she made these plants her focus. She revisited the exact spot on the family farm and collected resurrection plants there as well as other species in places that ranged from the Pilanesberg to the Drakensberg.

The plants went back to her greenhouse at the University of Cape Town, where she now occupies the post of research chair in plant molecular physiology. They have formed the foundation of her research into how the plants’ protection mechanisms can be used for the production of drought-tolerant crops.

“All plants have the genes that enable desiccation tolerance, but most use them only when they make seeds. Resurrection plants can also switch these genes on in their leaves and roots whenever drought occurs,” she explains. “The traditional biotech approach would be to transfer the genes into crops, but what I’ve recently discovered is that we may be able to activate existing desiccation-tolerant seed genes in the leaves and roots of crops — if we can work out what the activation signals are.”

This means figuring out how plants listen to their environment and signal to each other.

Without additional funding, she believes she may be up to 10 years away from developing drought-tolerant crops. With funding, it could take as little as five years.

The goal is to address food security in Africa. “We’ve got some promising maize varieties that we’re testing,” she says. “Drought-tolerant crops are plausible. We are getting places, step by step.”

She plans to spend some of her $100 000 prize money establishing an annual science award at the school on her brother’s Limpopo farm.

The L’Oréal-Unesco Award is the latest in a series of honours for Farrant. She is also the first woman in life sciences at UCT to receive an A-rating from the National Research Foundation. She is a past recipient of the Harry Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Fellowship Award and won the Distinguished Woman in Science award from the department of science & technology in 2010.

Source: Financial Mail

Additional reading on the awards, click here

NORTH AMERICAN LAUREATE – Prof Bonnie Bassler

The 2012 Laureate for North America is Professor Bonnie Bassler, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Principal Investigator, Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Professor Bassler is a world-renowned expert on how bacteria “talk” to each other using a chemical language in order to coordinate their behaviour as a group. Professor Bassler was selected for her work in understanding chemical communication between bacteria and opening up new doors for treating infections.

Her fascinating work has featured on FOODStuff SA before, and is essential reading for anyone involved in microbiology:

Bacteria are incredibly smart – a brilliant lecture by Bassler

Listening to bacteria


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