What do macadamias, artichokes, proteas and dinosaurs have in common?

University of Pretoria researchers find that the common ancestor of the approximately 100 species of Protea found in South Africa and Australia’s related macadamia nut trees (such as Macadamia integrifolia) and waratah (Telopea speciosissima) dates back to when dinosaurs went extinct.

Prof Tuan Duong, Prof Eshchar Mizrachi and Prof Nigel Barker

May 24, 2023

  • Professor Eshchar Mizrachi

Professor Eshchar Mizrachi completed his undergraduate studies as well as his honours, master’s and PhD degrees at the University of Pretoria (UP). He has been employed at the University since 2006, was appointed as a senior lecturer in 2013 and as associate professor in 2019.

Prof Mizrachi says that UP is home to several world-class institutes and facilities that support his area of interest: genomics, bioinformatics and biotechnology. One of his main personal drivers in his career is empowering early-career researchers in Africa and around the world,  and doing research that has an impact on society. UP, he adds, creates spaces and initiatives that foster transdisciplinary research in Africa.

Recently, his laboratory has led a multi-lab collaboration to sequence the genome of the king protea (Protea cynaroides), South Africa’s national flower and an iconic representative of the country’s biodiversity and the Cape Floral Kingdom. The genome opens up research opportunities to better understand the ecology, evolution and conservation of protea species and their relatives, and enables new horticulture research.

“My research focuses on sequencing the genomes of indigenous South African and African plant species and modelling complex biological processes, such as carbon allocation and partitioning in plant biomass formation and specialised roots for the acquisition of phosphorus and nitrogen in nutrient-poor soils,” Prof Mizrachi explains. He adds that this methodology can be applied broadly to answer questions about how novel pathways in plants are regulated by gene networks for the production of important chemical compounds.

“In the past decade or so, a convergence of technologies, computational capacity and a global drive for a more sustainable bioeconomy has highlighted the need to study and understand fundamental plant biology and evolution,” he says. Prof Mizrachi believes that his field of research contributes to the betterment of the world because the sequencing of plant genomes and the characterisation of the function of genes and gene networks that control plant traits such as growth, development and nutrient acquisition are critical for conservation efforts, biotechnology in agriculture and forestry, and for synthetic biology applications for novel products such as pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals.

“I believe we have a moral responsibility in South Africa to study our indigenous plant biodiversity and connect our citizens to it,” he says. With 20 000 to 25 000 plant species, many of which originate in and/or occur exclusively in the country, South Africa is in the top five countries in the world for plant biodiversity. Despite this, the legacy of systemic inequalities is preventing knowledge about our rich biodiversity from reaching most of South Africa’s citizens, especially at a young age. We are engaging with stakeholders in the creative industries to find new ways to foster these connections.”  

He has the following message for school learners or undergraduates: “Despite my lifelong love of nature and having researched plants for more than 15 years, it is important to note that I did not study biology in high school, and only really began studying plant biology after my master’s degree. Don’t ever think it’s too late to pursue something you are interested in or curious about.”

Prof Mizrachi hopes that his research contributes to answering fundamental questions about plant development and evolution, and leads to a broader interest from the public to engage with and value the natural world, particularly the amazing plant biodiversity that is around us.

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  • Professor Tuan Duong

Professor Tuan Duong completed his undergraduate studies and master’s degree at the VNU University of Science in Hanoi, Vietnam. He obtained a PhD from the University of Pretoria (UP) in 2013, and followed it with a postdoctoral and research fellowship at UP’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) between 2013 and 2017. He has been a permanent staff member at UP since 2017.

Prof Duong says he chose to pursue his doctorate at UP because he was interested in being involved at FABI, where he currently works.

“FABI is one of the leading international institutions in my field and it provides an engaging and pleasant work environment,” he says.

In terms of how his field of research contributes to the betterment of the world, he says: “Plants provide us with food, paper, housing, furniture and more. Protecting plant health and improving the sustainability of forestry and agriculture are crucially important for our daily life.”

Prof Duong is part of the research team that is leading genomics and genetics work at FABI. In terms of cross-faculty research, he is involved in a PhD committee for a student in the Department of Medical Microbiology, School of Medicine at UP.

“Recent highlights of my work include the resequencing and evolutionary analysis of the genome of Protea cynaroides, which is South Africa’s national flower,” he says. “This work was conducted at FABI. Additionally, I have sequenced and analysed the genomes of several important plant pathogenic fungi that are relevant to forestry and agriculture.”

As for his academic and research work, he hopes to make significant contributions that advance our scientific knowledge, and to train excellent scientists. He advises school learners or undergraduates who are interested in his field to find their passion, and work hard to pursue it.

In his spare time, he enjoys playing and watching tennis.

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  • Professor Nigel Barker
Professor Nigel Barker is Head of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS) at the University of Pretoria (UP). He joined the University six years ago, after he had been at Rhodes University for 18 years. He completed his undergraduate studies and MSc at the University of the Witwatersrand and his PhD at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Prof Barker’s area of training was plant taxonomy and systematics, with a specialisation in grass taxonomy; he holds an MSc and PhD in this area. “Over the course of my career, I have expanded my interests, and have worked on the systematics of other plant families including daisies, proteas and legumes,” he says.

He is a molecular systematist who uses DNA data to resolve evolutionary relationships in plants and animals. “I then use the data to understand the biogeographic patterns and the historical processes that resulted in the distribution patterns we see today,” Prof Barker explains. “I also use DNA data in population level studies on genetic diversity and phylogeography [the geographic ordination of genotypes] of plants and animals.”
Prof Barker adds that he does research as and when he can. “UP has amazing research facilities, and I have started projects with a wide range of collaborators across the faculty. I have been able to undertake new research direction as a consequence of this.”

He is interested in researching and promoting the cultivation and widespread use of African “orphan” crops. These are crops that are not traded internationally, but rather grown and eaten as part of local diets. Relating to this interest, Prof Barker is the UP representative on the ARUA Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems’ Implementation Committee for Orphan Crops.

Prof Barker also has an interest in mountain biodiversity and ecosystems, particularly on the Great Escarpment (over 15 publications) area and, more recently, the Waterberg mountains in Limpopo. He is the lead investigator on a R4,5 million project to document the biodiversity of these mountains. The project includes researchers from seven universities, a few museums, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) and South African National Parks (SANParks), as well as several local landowners and stakeholders in the region. Prof Barker regards the project as a recent highlight as it has been two years in the planning but was only funded and effectively initiated in 2021.

“My field of research contributes to the betterment of the world because if we are to address just about the whole gamut of Sustainable Development Goals, it is essential to understand life on earth – where it is found, how it evolved, what genes and genomes it possesses, and so forth.”
Apart from colleagues in his own department, Prof Barker collaborates with the Departments of Zoology and Entomology, Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, and Agricultural Economics, all within the NAS faculty. “I also have an interest in community engagement activities, and am collaborating with the Arts Department in the Faculty of Humanities around the role of art in promoting awareness about plants. As part of this, he and a colleague, Dr Angelique Kritzinger, are supervising a collaboration between plant science and art students for a community engagement module.”
As to who inspired him in his research, Prof Barker says his PhD supervisor, Prof Peter Linder, who lectured at UCT and at the University of Zurich and is now retired, was a huge inspiration and is his academic role model. “He is a globally recognised expert in African flora, and known for his love of plants, Africa and its people; his joie de vivre is amazing.”
Prof Barker hopes to positively impact “the lives of ordinary folk eking out a living on African soil”. “No number of scientific papers in fancy journals can equate to that. I have not fully got there yet – maybe my interests in the Waterberg biodiversity and conservation, or orphan crop work, will be a start,” he says.
“We need to ensure that we leave some part of planet Earth not only better understood but also untouched, or at least protected from the stupidity and greed of Homo sapiens – the supposed ‘wise’ man. We need to use Earth’s resources more effectively by using local plants for food and other applications, such as sources of medicines. That is why my research matters.”
Prof Barker’s advice to young people interested in his research area is to get out into the field and learn to love, identify and understand the ecosystems that surround them. Even urban systems have a form of ecology, he says. “You don’t have to go to the Kruger Park to do this – your backyard or park is enough. Join organisations or clubs that can help you to learn and grow, such as the Botanical Society of South Africa, or a birding club. Download and contribute to apps like iNaturalist, which document our planet’s biodiversity, and make your own contribution to this effort too.”
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