Studying deserts to understand life-giving organisms

Dr Thulani Makhalanyane could have chosen any profession: he excelled in business subjects at school, and was head boy of his high school and junior mayor of his hometown, Klerksdorp. But this son of a school principal and a nurse has always wanted to know how things work, so he followed this passion into science.

Working in the field of microbial ecology, Makhalanyane started his academic career with a double major (chemistry and biology) BSc from the then University of the North West, following it with honours from the same university. Next came his MSc and PhD from work completed in the department of biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape. 

It was during his research into the quality of ground water in a rural village in the North West for his honours degree that Makhalanyane realised he wanted to pursue a career in research, and his MSc work studying Antarctic soil microbial communities sealed the deal for him. 

He tried working for a biotech company but the academic world called him back, and his PhD work expanded his focus beyond the Antarctic to the Namib Desert.

“My research is specifically about extreme environments,” he says. “My work is focused on understanding microbial diversity and functionality in these locations, with much of my research taking place in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, and the Namib Desert.” 

For context, he points out that around 40% of the Earth is arid, and an increasing proportion of terrestrial environments is under threat of desertification. 

“The area in Antarctica where we do our research is part of the less than 0.4% of the continent that is free of ice. Though there is so much ice on this part of the world, it is still considered a desert, because it has virtually no rainfall. It’s as much a desert as the Namib Desert. In these hyper-arid deserts, there is a near total absence of plants and other higher organisms, due to the extreme environmental conditions. The surfaces of these deserts are covered by quartz rocks, which are dominated by microbial communities called hypoliths.

“These communities are very important because our research has shown that they are responsible for the input of carbon and nitrogen into these arid soils. Our research has helped us to understand how changing climatic conditions may affect functional processes. By understanding how microbial communities survive in these extreme environments, we are hoping to understand how they have adapted in these conditions.” 

This research forms part of South Africa’s obligations as a signatory of the Antarctic Treaty; the country must conduct research aimed at protecting pristine Antarctic environments. 

“As a scientist, my greatest achievement is having the results of my PhD published in the leading journal within the field of microbial ecology, the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal. I am also the lead author in a review for FEMS Microbiology Reviews, which I consider to be my second-greatest academic achievement,” he says. 

He is also currently a Young Ambassador for the International Society for Microbial Ecology, is a member of the bioinformatics and training subcommittee for the department of science and technology, and is a reviewer for a number of international journals. 

Makhalanyane’s days are not just about research — he’s a mentor to postgraduate students at the University of Pretoria, where he is currently based, and lectures third year students at its department of genetics.

“My challenges are similar to those faced by researchers globally — generating funding!” he says. “Our research is very expensive and it’s a great challenge trying to remain globally competitive, especially with the depreciation of the rand.”

Married to Andiswa, whom he met while studying in Cape Town, Makhalanyane is also proud father to two-year-old Azahlume. 

“My wife has been really supportive, and I would not be able to carry out my work without her in my life,” he says. “My parents and sister still live in Klerksdorp and I take enormous inspiration from them — they gave me the foundation for my academic career, and books have always surrounded me.”

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