A microbial odyssey

Professor Donald Cowan. (Supplied)

Professor Donald Cowan. (Supplied)

Professor Donald Cowan, director of the Genomics Research Institute and director at the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics of the University of Pretoria (UP), receives the award for his research contributions in the fields of microbial ecology, biodiversity and bioprospecting.

His research has contributed to the understanding of the diversity and function of micro-organisms in various environments. Cowan has also collaborated extensively with both national and international researchers throughout his career.

He moved from the University College London to the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 2001 and then to UP in 2012. In establishing an entirely new group at UWC, he was provided with the opportunity to expand and redirect his research programme.

Building on his background of microbial enzymology and his developing skills in metagenomics, he has successfully applied these methods to a range of different environments, including both hot (Namib Desert) and cold (Antarctic Dry Valleys) desert soils, African agricultural soils and plant-soil interfaces.

Through the 1990s, it became apparent that culture dependent methods accessed only a fraction of the true microbial diversity in any environment. Also, little or no modern molecular studies of microbial diversity and genomics had ever been undertaken in South Africa.

His research employs advanced molecular technologies, similar to those that are used in all the leading laboratories around the world.

Examples of the unique scientific aspects of Cowan’s work are best exemplified by his studies on Antarctic terrestrial microbial ecology. His work on the structure and function of microbial communities in Antarctic soils stands at the forefront of research in the field, and the products of this research have been the revision of a number of established paradigms.

For this work, he has published more than 35 papers and chapters, been invited to give presentations at numerous international meetings, and is recognised as one of the world’s leading researchers on Antarctic microbiology.