Shaping the future through science

Science in action

Unisa, shaping the future through science

Unisa’s Science Campus with its well-equipped, modern facilities is a research paradise for national and international researchers and postgraduate students. It offers the perfect environment for Unisa students in the sciences to put theory into practice. Innovation, cutting-edge research and finding novel solutions to Africa’s needs and supporting its development – these are the associations that come to mind when visiting the Unisa Science Campus.

The Science Campus’s modern facilities and laboratory equipment position Unisa as one of the most advanced institutions not only in the country and the African continent but globally. Attracting students and researchers from all over the world and having such equipment not only boost its research output but ensure the university takes centre stage in accelerating Africa’s development.

The College of Science Engineering & Technology (CSET) supports Unisa’s research goals and strategies and focuses on two of its strategic niche areas in particular. This is namely the innovation and capacity building in science and technology, and open distance learning with a specific focus on the teaching of science, engineering and technology.

The College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES) is destined to grow research capacity and support research activities in the fields of agricultural, animal health horticulture, nature conservation, consumer and other vocational sciences. The college boasts with leading cutting-edge laboratory and horticultural facilities, which are not generally associated with open, distance, e-learning institutions, so that our students will have a place to grow their minds and put theory into practice, which is what every scientist dreams to do.

CAES research in action

 “Proteins: Molecular machines and drug targets”
A protein biochemist works with viral proteins and drug targets. Proteins play a role in carrying out functions in organisms, if they don’t behave optimally disease can arise. Drugs are designed to bind to proteins and restore optimum function. With the cure not existing for many diseases the identification of new drugs is important. Understanding how virus proteins work during the viral infection process allows for the design of drugs to combat their ability to replicate and cause disease. Virus proteins can also be placed in vaccine formulations to prevent infection, so optimizing vaccine conditions for the proteins makes new vaccines possible that have longer shelf life in harsh conditions. Viral proteins are also robust large molecular machines that can be manipulated to perform biotechnologically important functions. These functions include delivery of drugs to particular cells or tissues or carrying markers for diagnostics to specific sites. Therefore, understanding the details of the mechanics of how virus proteins work allows for these applications.

Molecular basis of plant-microbes interactions and plant pathogen biology

The ever-increasing demand for food requires that crops are able to withstand disease pressure, utilize beneficial microbes to maximize productivity.  Plant molecular mechanisms for disease resistance are an important subject of study so that basic knowledge for breeding and plant genetic modification can be generated.  A multi-disciplinary approach which includes plant gene expression profiling, proteomics, metabolomics and high-resolution imaging is currently embarked upon to answer such questions as: What properties does a plant need to cope with disease pressure?  What mechanisms are involved in plant-microbe beneficial associations?  This work utilizes high-end instruments and novel information is being generated to add to the body of knowledge.

 “The Sweet Tooth of Cancer and Anti-cancer Drug Discovery

Cancer is regarded as a non-communicable as well as lifestyle disease and is a major health burden worldwide. It has been known for a long time that cancer cells consume large amounts of sugar (glucose) than normal cells but this has been ignored as a source of treatment and management of cancer. Our research takes advantage of this phenomenon to develop drugs that can selectively kill cancer cells. Furthermore, we investigate the impact of sugar in the management of cancer. We think that it may be critical that cancer patients manage the amount of sugar that can be derived for their diet.

Genetic architecture of cattle ticks and their associated tick-borne pathogens in South Africa

In Southern Africa, tick and tick-borne diseases are severe problems in livestock production. Estimated annual losses due to ticks and tick-borne diseases in South Africa is about R1 billion. It is reported that about 80% of the world’s cattle suffer to some extent from the deleterious effects caused by ticks. The efforts to eradicate ticks and tick-borne diseases using chemical control strategies have been implemented in South Africa, however, these chemicals are costly, cattle susceptibility to ticks remain unchanged, consumer concerns about chemical residues and resistance of tick species to chemicals still remain the major challenges. This has created rising demands for different approaches that can alleviate the negative effects of ticks on livestock industry and thereby enhance the livestock industries’ contribution to the world economy. Therefore, there is a considerable need to explore alternative technologies of tick control such as genomics. Our research is focused on the use of genomic approaches including high through put genotyping and sequencing to identify genes associated to host genetic resistance to ticks (HGRT). These approaches may provide tools that will allow us to develop sound tick control breeding programmes in cooperating HGRT to the South African livestock farming.

 Applied Epidemiology and public health

The research emphasizes the importance of descriptive and analytic epidemiologic information to promote and protect the public’s health, and describe the application or practice of epidemiology to address public health issues. Therefore, a lot of the research conducted and published involves the investigation of a public health problem, which in most cases is, but not limited to disease. At the moment there are several MSc students looking at the microbiological profile of a number of foods (in both the formal and informal sector) with a view to establish the risks associated with eating such foods. The ultimate aim, is to recommend interventions so as to minimize the risk such foods pose to the public.

There are also students who are investigating antimicrobial resistance in both humans and animals under my guidance. Antimicrobial resistance is a huge public health problem that threatens to wipe out the gains made in the medical field since the discovery of antimicrobials. This is because development of antimicrobial resistance has potential to render existing antimicrobials ineffective. Research on antimicrobial resistance conducted, investigates the burden and trends of antimicrobial resistance, and assesses the possibility of antimicrobial resistance clustering in space in humans and domestic animals. We also apply epidemiological techniques in other fields to enhance the quality of life of the public. For example, one MSc student is currently investigating the draught that occurred in Limpopo in the period 2014-2016. He is using epidemiological techniques to identify the factors that were significantly associated with losses the farmers experienced. Such information is useful for planning future interventions to alleviate the impact of an impending draught on small scale livestock farmers.

Last modified: Wed Nov 14 07:59:17 SAST 2018