Four postgraduate students from the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology are about to set sail for the South Atlantic. The all-female team of scientists will spend 36 days aboard the RV SA Agulhas II, which will be operated by the national Department of Environmental Affairs.
As part of a programme supported by the National Research Foundation and South African National Antarctic Programme, the students will collect samples and conduct several experiments in the underexplored ocean. Team leader Mancha Mabaso, Caitlyn Fourie, Sade Magabotha (of the Microbiome Research Group at UP) and Francinah Ratsoma (of UP’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, Tree Protection Cooperative Programme and the Centre of Excellence in Plant Health Biotechnology) will join a team of scientific researchers from several South African universities.
“We hope to reveal new insights into microorganisms [bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses] in the South Atlantic,” Mabaso says. “The large research programme focuses on marine environments that are geographically strategic for South Africa. While there have been several large projects focused on birds, seals and other so-called charismatic macrofauna, few studies have assessed the role played by microorganisms in the South Atlantic. The team aims to shed light on the exact role played by microbial communities in regulating the function of the oceans (ecosystem services).”
The project, titled ‘Enhanced insights regarding the ecology, evolution and function of marine microbiomes’, broadly aims to provide insights on microbial responses to environmental change and to assess their potential feedback on ecosystem services.
Mabaso, a PhD Genetics student, has participated in several marine voyages in the Southern and Pacific Oceans. This will be her first trip to the South Atlantic. “I am enthusiastic about the role of women, especially black women, in marine microbial ecology and in science. Research has always been notoriously male-centric, and it is empowering to be part of a research group that gives us a platform to grow and make a meaningful contribution to the field.”
Her studies explore how micronutrient limitation influences marine communities. Her doctoral studies explore how nutrient supplementation may affect microbial function and carbon sequestration in marine environments. “The findings of this study will have greater implications for understanding climate change in the global ocean,” she says.
Fourie, who is doing her master’s in Genetics, is interested in understanding the evolution of microorganisms in the oceans. “My project focuses on microbial gene duplication events. The extent of gene duplications and their consequences on marine microbial communities have not been well studied. I hope that the samples I collect during the cruise will help resolve this knowledge gap. Bioinformatics master’s student Magabotha says her project aims to develop new computational tools for studying the evolution of microbial communities. “Participating in the cruise will give me an opportunity to experience first-hand the type of effort that goes into collecting biological samples,” she says.
As a computational biologist, she spends most of her time on her computer, processing and extracting useful biological information from sequenced datasets. “Engaging in sample collecting and wet-lab experiments forms part of my ‘primitive’ BSc undergraduate memories,” Magabotha says. “The samples collected and experiments conducted yielded predictable results according to the outcomes of the subject modules. The process of collecting samples and the unpredictability of the insights they will provide will certainly make for an exciting adventure.”
These sorts of oceanic studies have direct relevance for South Africans. As a PhD student in Microbiology, Ratsoma focuses on understanding the agricultural importance of extracellular vehicles (EVs). EVs are lipid subcellular nanoparticles (less than 0.000000001 m) that, upon release from their parent cells, deliver proteins, enzymes, lipids and other particles to recipient cells or organisms. “Surprisingly, we know very little about microbial functionality in extreme marine environments,” she says. “I hope to provide fundamental insights that may have agricultural applications. I hope that my results will contribute to improved soil fertility and plant tolerance to various environmental stressors.”
Microbes that live in extreme environments are highly acclimated to these conditions, making them difficult to maintain and investigate in the lab. The research cruise aims to bridge this gap. “Our research group proposes EVs to explore the agricultural importance of extremophilic microbes,” Ratsoma says. “All living microbes constantly release a fleet of EVs into their extracellular environment to modify (optimise) it for survival and growth. Furthermore, vesicles present in the environment can be absorbed by other species (like fungi and plants), thus paving the way for their exogenous application under unnatural settings (such as lab or glasshouse settings).” The students are being supervised by Professor Thulani Makhalanyane of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at UP. “I am very pleased that women scientists in South Africa are taking their rightful place in leading microbial oceanography,” he says. “I hope that this generation puts an end to the days of all-male 100-person cruises. Also, it is fantastic that our institution is leading such efforts.”