South Africa

Op-Ed: South Africa needs more investment in biophysics and structural biology

By T Kruger, T Sewell & L Norris 4 April 2018

South Africa has some excellent researchers in various branches of biophysics. However, despite lofty documents put out by the Department of Science and Technology like the Bioeconomy Strategy and the SARIR (South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap), South Africa remains woefully under-invested in biophysics and structural biology. By TJAART KRUGER, TREVOR SEWELL and LAWRENCE NORRIS.

On 22 January, Minister Naledi Pandor tweeted: We need to develop our own pharmaceutical innovation capacities – by attracting foreign investment for African platforms such as the Biovac Institute for the development and manufacturing of vaccines. What are your thoughts?”

It might have been better for her to say: We need to develop our own pharmaceutical innovation capacities – by investing in South Africa’s infrastructure and people in the fields of biophysics, biochemistry and structural biology, after which foreign investment would certainly follow.

Biophysics is a multidisciplinary field made up of physicists, biologists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Structural biology is a specific branch of biophysics where scientists use various tools of the fields mentioned to determine the structure, dynamics and function of biological molecules, from the largest and most complex proteins and DNA assemblies, to small molecules that are often drug candidates. In molecular medicine, physiological function often follows from molecular structure. Structural biology has already revolutionised medical research and continues to do so, as evidenced by the award of the 2017 Chemistry Nobel Prize to the inventors of cryo-electron microscopy.

South Africa has some excellent researchers in various branches of biophysics, including drug delivery, nanomedicine, biotechnology, infectious diseases, biophotonics, quantum biology, protein crystallography, genomics and more. However, despite lofty documents put out by the Department of Science and Technology like the Bioeconomy Strategy and the SARIR (South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap), South Africa remains woefully under-invested in biophysics and structural biology.

This makes Minister Pandor’s vision virtually impossible to achieve. Biophysics could have a tremendous impact throughout our economy, eg understanding crop yields and animal physiology at the molecular level, harnessing energy production and pollution remediation capabilities of plants and bacteria, and of course meeting all the human health challenges that cripple our lives. In fact, biophysics is a fundamental enabling science in medicine, agribusiness, industrial biotechnology and even sustainable energy.

Here is what we recommend: Led by the NRF, MRC and DST, the government should develop a multiple department initiative to support the work of South African biophysicists and structural biologists. The NRF and DHET should incentivise our universities to build infrastructure in all the fields that support biophysics, including chemistry and biochemistry labs, computing, as well as equipment in spectroscopy, electron microscopy and crystallography. DTI and DST should together implement policies that encourage our industries to invest in the bioeconomy strategy.

The South African biophysicists are already moving to organise themselves into a national professional association. We are represented on the Council of the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics with a specific mandate on education and capacity building. South African scientists are playing a leading role in the development of Pan African infrastructure for biophysics, including the African Light Source Initiative. We have been successful in hosting major international conferences, including the international Quantum Effects in Biological Systems Workshop and the Biophysics in the Understanding, Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases conference under the auspices of the Biophysical Society.

South African astronomers have shown that sustained government investment in science will automatically lead to direct foreign investment. One consequence of our local astronomy research is the enormous international SKA project, a major leap in engineering, research and development in South Africa. Investment in infrastructure and human capacity development that will enable the study of protein structure, in particular, will be enabling for the development of local industries concerned with drug discovery and development, advanced agrochemicals and fourth generation industrial biotechnology. This will, in time, inevitably lead to direct foreign investment and the development of South African-owned IP and products in these areas. DM

Photo: The filamentous fungus Aspergillus niger has the natural capacity to produce various technically useful enzymes such as phytase, glucanase and xylanase. The micro-organism was genetically modified to enable it to manufacture large quantities of phytase and other enzymes – as a kind of living factory. Magnification 180 :1 (12cm in width). Photo: BASF (via flickr)

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