Molecular genetic services to agricultural industries

CenGen founder and director Reneé Prins

CenGen founder and director Reneé Prins

CenGen, a privately-owned company that provides molecular genetic services to agricultural industries, is proof that dynamite comes in small packages. What began as a one-woman business has grown to a team of six focused and highly productive members, whose outputs are comparable with those of far larger research groups worldwide.

CenGen is recognised by international role players as an excellent research partner and thus secures significant global funding for its groundbreaking work in the field of molecular genetics.

According to CenGen founder and director, Dr Renée Prins, the company’s flagship research project is an attempt to clone the first wheat disease-resistant gene in South Africa. CenGen collaborates closely with colleagues at Zürich University and the University of the Free State to isolate the gene sequence of this disease-resistant gene — something that could prove to be an agricultural game-changer.

Prins grew up on a farm and first discovered genetics in biology class. She registered for a BSc Agric and postgraduate studies in genetics at Stellenbosch University. It was during these years that she became fully immersed in researching the genetics of wheat. “It opened up a completely new world to me,” says Prins. “I really liked the concept of taking on the responsibility of finding answers to a specific research questions.”

According to Prins, molecular genetic research and its effective implementation in South African crop breeding programmes were virtually non-existent 15 years ago. This, coupled with an evident skills shortage in science and lack of scientific job opportunities in rural areas, seeded the launch of CenGen in 2003.

“Our core focus is the implementation of molecular genomics technologies in a variety of plants, as well as various other research projects,” says Prins. “On the research front, we collaborate with leading scientists to address and solve problems in major crops such as wheat, barley and grape cultivars. In terms of application, we have been involved in a number of projects, including the implementation of DNA technologies in wheat breeding cycles and DNA ‘fingerprinting’ to determine cultivar identity in juvenile fruit trees and grapevines.”

Prins explains that gene mapping has the power to completely transform crop breeding programmes. CenGen’s input on rust resistance in wheat and fungal resistance in barley and grapes, among others, continues to assist crop breeders as and when new findings are made.

“I find it very rewarding when I drive past a crop growing on a farm and know that we have ascertained its ‘inside’,” she says. “It is so rewarding to know that we have done something, albeit small, that has contributed to how it is produced and the fact that it will actually be used to feed people.”

Going forward, Prins sees CenGen continuing to expand the company’s expertise from traditional grain crops to many other species over time, and to offer the same standard of knowledge and services to a growing number of agri-industries.

“However,” she concludes, “every success at CenGen is not an individual’s achievement but the collective result of a fantastic, focused, productive and exceptionally passionate team.”