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Pushing the boundaries of science

In the past two decades a dynamic scientist’s research into viruses, fungi and tree pathogens has had a marked positive impact on the South African timber, forestry and viticulture industries.

Her pioneering work in forestry and molecular biology has brought significant economic gains for the industry and for the country as a whole. It comes as no surprise to learn that she has been called in to act as an ambassador for South Africa’s forestry industry on numerous occasions.

Professor Brenda Wingfield has always pushed the boundaries of science. She was the first person to start DNA sequencing of filamentous fungi in South Africa and her research input changed the direction of research programmes in many significant ways. One of her department heads once told her that her surname should have been Windfield, not Wingfield, as she was the living embodiment of the proverbial winds of change.

Wingfield, an NRF-rated scientist for many years and internationally recognised for her research, is professor of genetics at the University of Pretoria and programme leader of the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology.

Wingfield’s academic career started when she accepted a position in the department of microbiology at the then University of the Orange Free State. During her stay in Bloemfontein she developed a research programme with a focus on the molecular phylogeny and taxonomy of tree pathogenic fungi. It was at this stage that she joined forces with her husband, Professor Mike Wingfield, who at the time was already recognised internationally for his research in mycology and plant pathology.

The dynamic duo decided to move their collective research programmes to the University of Pretoria in 1998, following a conversation with the former principal of the university, Johan van Zyl, who shared his vision of a research institute for forestry and agriculture with them.

Shortly afterwards they established the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (Fabi) at the university, giving substance to Van Zyl’s vision. Many researchers of the already well-known tree pathology co-operative programme joined them in the move to Pretoria in what must have been one of the largest relocations of any research group in the history of South Africa. One of the team members needed to relocate not only her family, but a herd of breeding cattle as well.

Beside her position as professor of genetics, Wingfield has continued to nurture her research programme, which focuses on the molecular genetics of plant pathogenic fungi. She says that some of the technology used on pathogens in South African forests is expensive and outdated. “The scientist in me always wants to apply and test new technology,” she says. During a recent sabbatical in the US she worked on DNA fingerprinting in tree pathogens and fungi, which can be regarded as a precursor to DNA barcoding.

Although it is probably still going to take years to get the education backlog right, education in South Africa, she says, is moving in the right direction. “They just need to make biology a compulsory subject for matric,” she says.

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