Hot and cold research

This month the University of the Western Cape (UWC) formally approved the formation of the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM). Comprising more than 30 researchers and support staff, the institute is led by Professor Don Cowan of UWC’s department of biotechnology.

The institute has evolved from Cowan’s research team, formerly the UWC Advanced Research Centre for Applied Microbiology. This team has been one of UWC’s flagship research groups and, under its new title, is expected to continue as the leading research team in the faculty of science.

IMBM has diverse research interests in the fields of microbial ecology and microbial biotechnology. One of the major fields of study is on micro-organisms that inhabit very cold environments, particularly on the Antarctic continent.

In collaboration with Professor Craig Cary at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, researchers in IMBM travel annually to the Dry Valleys of Eastern Antarctica, one of the few areas of the continent not permanently covered by glacial ice. Their studies include investigations into the diversity of cold-adapted bacteria, their adaptations to the harsh conditions of the Antarctic environment and the discovery and application of enzymes and secondary metabolites from these organisms.

Cowan and his team collaborate extensively with other South African and international research groups and maintain strong linkages with researchers in the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Norway, Sweden, China, Chile, Ethiopia and New Zealand. These collaborations are supported by funds from the South African National Research Foundation, the Water Research Commission and by local and international industries.

Of particular importance is a major collaboration between IMBM, Professor Stephanie Burton at the University of Cape Town and a new, rapidly growing British biotechnology company, TMO Renewables Ltd. The primary focus of TMO is the development of technology for the production of bioethanol using high-temperature (thermophilic) micro-organisms.

These organisms are not dependent of food-grade sugar sources (such as maize) but can convert cellulosic material to biofuel. IMBM and Burton collaborate on projects relating to understanding and optimising the pathways of ethanol production in these thermophilic organisms. This technology is of direct relevance to energy production in South Africa, which has little food grade carbohydrate to spare but a plentiful supply of waste cellulosic feedstocks.

Cowan’s research team has maintained an impressive record of publications in international peer-reviewed science journals, and a steady stream of successful honours, master’s and PhD graduates.

With a growing research base, the institute is expected to increase its research and training productivity and to increasingly provide technology and products for use in the rapidly growing South African biotechnology industry.

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