Fellows tackle big research questions

09 October 2006

African development was the focus of two lectures delivered by Claude Leon Foundation Fellows in September, sponsored by The Royal Society of South Africa and the Claude Leon Foundation, the fourth of the series of lectures under their auspices.

Dr Dionne Shepherd (molecular and cell biology) presented her work on developing maize genotypes that are resistant to the maize streak virus (MSV), a severe agricultural problem in Africa. Her postdoctoral work has involved the production of elite (commercial) transgenic maize, the first commercially exploitable transgenic MSV-resistant maize in the world.

Her abstract reads: "With a view to commercialisation, maize has been transformed with minimal transgene cassettes, which do not contain the undesirable ampicillin resistance gene, and the first transgenic lines are currently setting seed.

"In addition, work has begun on a novel strategy called the In-Plant Activation technology (InPAct), whereby transgene expression is induced only upon viral infection. This has an added benefit when considering safety issues regarding consumption of genetically modified food, that, since MSV does not infect the seed, the transgene will not be expressed in the maize cob."

Dr Fenton "Woody" Cotterill (geological sciences and molecular and cell biology), is part of the AEON project, a multidisciplinary institute that hopes to "crack some big questions" on Earth's history by integrating molecular and geological data to decipher the intricacies of palaeo-drainage and speciation events in Africa.

His abstract reads: "Africa's hinterland is dominated by vast, elevated plateaux whose land surfaces are many millions of years old. Their drainage has evolved through a complex history. Tectonism, ramifying southwest from foci in the East African Rift System across Angola, Zambia and Katanga, has caused significant changes to rivers through captures, diversions and impoundments."

The modern topology of drainage across High Africa represents vestiges of palaeo-drainages that have evolved through spectacular rearrangements, while palaeo lakes have waxed and waned.

"It is not surprising that the biodiversity of the region has been influenced by these agencies of landscape evolution - as exemplified in the rich endemism of aquatic species."

The Claude Leon Foundation is a charitable trust devoted to upgrading South African tertiary research in science, engineering and medicine. The foundation's Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme is in its ninth year and this year is supporting 43 candidates. The foundation has already supported 124 postdoctoral students, nine doctoral fellows, four mathematics champions and nine teachers, having committed R21.3-million to this programme.

The foundation is the result of a bequest by entrepreneur Claude Leon, whose grandson, William Frankel (OBE), is the foundation's chairperson and a former UCT alumnus (BA Law).

In his opening address, Frankel said they received over 120 applications annually for postdoctoral awards. The selection is rigorous, relying on a panel of 20 professors from institutions around the country.

The foundation generally funds all applicants who fall into the A category. Applications for 2007 include 41 A-star rated candidates, including a Nature paper author.

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