Professor Jill Farrant, the world’s leading expert on resurrection plants and University of Cape Town (UCT) A-rated researcher, has been named as a recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s coveted Georg Forster Research Award.
The award, which totals €60 000 (approximately R107 000), is granted annually to six academics from developing and transition countries whose research has had a significant impact and holds the potential to produce solutions for specific challenges facing the developing world.
Over the course of her career, Professor Farrant has established herself as a world leader in the field of plant desiccation tolerance, working with both seeds and resurrection plants (RPs). Along with her A-rating from the National Research Foundation, Farrant also holds the South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Systems Biology Studies on Plant Desiccation Tolerance for Food Security in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.
In hot pursuit of drought-tolerant crops
As the name suggests, RPs are plants that can remain in a desiccated, dead-like state for months to years and then “come back to life" within 12 to 48 hours when rehydrated. Although desiccation tolerance is common in seeds, it is an extremely rare phenomenon in vegetative plant tissues and only a handful of plants have been found to have this ability.
Taking a multidisciplinary approach, Farrant’s Plant Stress Laboratory utilises molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology and physiology to understand the protection mechanisms used by RPs to survive in arid conditions. Using this data, they seek to employ biotechnology to test informed genetic alterations for the production of drought-tolerant crops.
“What we’re trying to do is understand the environmental and cellular signals that switch on these genes in resurrection plants, to mimic the process in crops.”
Although the term “genetic alterations” may set off alarm bells for some, Farrant explained that it really need not. Through years of research and various collaborations, her lab has established that the genes RPs utilise in their roots and leaves as a response to drought stress are in many instances the same genes used by conventional crops (such as maize, corn and rice) for seed desiccation.
“What we’re trying to do is understand the environmental and cellular signals that switch on these genes in resurrection plants, to mimic the process in crops,” she said.
Where it all began
Having grown up on a farm in Limpopo, agriculture has always been close to Farrant’s heart. This is, in fact, where she first observed the resurrection phenomenon at the age of nine, when a plant that had seemed dead the day before suddenly appeared lush and green after a short bout of rain.
“I actually wanted to be a farmer, but my father was quite adamant about the fact that I needed to go to university to get a degree,” she said. “My mother, on the other hand, wanted me to become a make-up artist at Stuttafords.”
A number of decades later, Farrant’s academic career has undoubtedly exceeded her father’s wildest expectations, while she continues to pursue research that will hold untold benefit for the agriculture of the future.
Although her ultimate goal is to find a way to develop crops that can continue to nourish populations in arid, drought-prone climates, Farrant’s research has also proven to be an invaluable asset for the beauty and wellness industry.
Most notably, Giorgio Armani harnessed her work on Myrothamnus flabellifolia in the development of the Armani Reviscentalis anti-aging skincare collection. She was featured in a number of short documentaries by the luxury fashion house, including an intimate conversation with Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett.
“So, in a way, I also fulfilled my mother’s dream by contributing to the beauty industry,” she said.
While Farrant can’t reveal too much just yet, she has also hinted at another beauty industry initiative that is the pipeline, which could also support the sustainable cultivation and harvest of Myrothamnus flabellifolia.
Farrant’s lifelong passion for her specialist field is evident, making her the ideal recipient of the Georg Forster Research Award, which seeks to honour the life work of internationally renowned academics and offers them the opportunity to conduct a research project of their own choosing at a German research institution in close collaboration with a specialist colleague. Candidates are nominated by an established academic employed by a university or research institution in Germany.
Farrant said her nomination for the award by Professor Ute Vothknecht from the University of Bonn’s Institute for Cellular and Molecular Botany came as a pleasant surprise.
“We’ve never met, so it was completely out of the blue,” she said.
Farrant goes on to explain that the nomination was prompted by Professor Jurgen Soll, who had been Professor Vothknecht’s PhD supervisor at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. Having attended one of Farrant’s talks a number of years ago, Professor Soll recognised that her work would complement Vothknecht’s research around the role of complex plant signalling networks in the face of drought stress.
“The idea is to get some more information about these resurrection plants that can be a valuable add-on to what she’s already found out in her models,” said Farrant.
The award allows for Farrant to spend as much time as she likes doing research in Germany over the next five years. She will start by setting up a workshop at the University of Bonn next year and hopes to follow this with a food security think tank, bringing researchers from across Europe together to share their knowledge.
Farrant added that apart from laying the initial groundwork, she plans on sending one of her PhD students to conduct the research on her behalf.
“Whenever I can, I send a student abroad to go and learn about new technology and then to come back and teach us,” she said.
Recognising this as a golden opportunity for the cross-pollination of knowledge, Farrant will also be hosting students from the University of Bonn at her UCT Plant Stress Laboratory.
Find out more about Farrant’s work.
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