Biotechnology - The next wave

Prof TE Cloete, University of Pretoria

Biotechnology is very much the buzzword amongst scientists and the public in South Africa. What is biotechnology, where is it headed and why is it important? 

The South African government has shown its clear intention to keep South Africa on track with biotechnological research and development by allocating R400 million over the next three years towards its biggest ever single research support for biotechnology. 

This money was earmarked for three Biotechnology Regional innovation Centres (BRIC's) in Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Western Cape. The Gauteng BRIC will be known as BioPAD (Biotechnology partnerships and development) and be governed by a newly formed board of trustees representing the major stakeholders.

Science and technology have become a pillar of our knowledge based society and a fundamental catalyst for economic development. Science ultimately supports the innovations and concepts that meet societal needs and drive economies. For many developing countries there are no more important steps toward eradicating poverty than to provide adequate nutrition and to suppress diseases that drain a populations strength, morale and earning ability. The Department of Science and Technology have realised that these challenges are best addressed by people who are well trained in modern biotechnological sciences and who live among the very problems they study. By training more local scientists in biotechnology, South Africa can create the human resources we need to confront such biological challenges on our own home ground.

According to Professor Eugene Cloete, Chairperson of the School for Biological Sciences at the University of Pretoria, BioPAD (Biotechnology Partnerships and Development) was established as one of the BRIC's, to pro-actively address challenges posed by the varied needs of the region and the continent, including a need for world-class skills and technology platforms to sustain and continue development.

Life sciences and biotechnology are widely recognised to be, after information technology, the next wave of the knowledge-based economy, creating new opportunities for our societies and economies.

Revolutions in life sciences

A revolution is taking place in the knowledge base of life sciences and biotechnology, opening up new applications in human healthcare, animal health, agriculture and food production, environmental protection and mining. The common knowledge base relating to living organisms and ecosystems is producing new scientific disciplines such as genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics and novel applications. These in turn offer the prospect of applications with profound impacts throughout our society and economy, far beyond uses such as genetically modified plant crops.

There are, for example, still no known cures for half of the world's diseases, and even existing cures such as antibiotics are becoming less effective due to resistance of microorganisms to treatments. Biotechnology already enables cheaper, safer and more ethical production of a growing number of traditional as well as new drugs and medical services (e.g. human growth hormone without risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, treatment for haemophiliacs with unlimited sources of coagulation factors free from AIDS and hepatitis C virus, human insulin, and vaccines against hepatitis B and rabies).

In the agro-food area, biotechnology has the potential to deliver improved food quality and environmental benefits through agronomically improved crops. The enhancement of natural resistance to disease or stress in plants and animals can lead to reduced use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers and drugs, and increased use of conservation tillage - and hence more sustainable agricultural practices, reducing soil erosion and benefiting the environment. Life sciences and biotechnology are likely to be one of the important tools in fighting hunger and malnutrition and feeding an increasing human population on the currently cultivated land area, with reduced environmental impact. Biotechnology also has the potential to improve non-food uses of crops as sources of industrial feedstocks or new materials such as biodegradable plastics.

New ways to protect and improve the environment are offered by biotechnology including bioremediation of polluted air, soil, water and waste as well as development of cleaner industrial products and processes, for example, based on the use of enzymes (biocatalysis).

The success of any knowledge-based economy rests upon the generation, diffusion and application of new knowledge. Investments in research and development, education and training and new managerial approaches are therefore of key importance in meeting the challenges posed by life sciences and biotechnology.

The potential for applications of life sciences and biotechnology promises to be a growing source of wealth creation in the future, leading to the creation of jobs, many of which will be highly skilled, and new opportunities for investment in further research.

Scientific and engineering knowledge has to be matched with entrepreneurial management skills for successful company operation. Comprehensive, up-to-date and publicly and freely available bioinformatics data are the basis for advances in biotechnology. In order to flourish, companies need access to high-quality public and private databases and tools.

We need to network South Africa's biotechnology community to facilitate open access to knowledge, skills and best practices, and to create a close community of actors and institutions involved in biotechnology.


BioPAD on behalf of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) represents the interests of Biotechnology in Animal health (AH), Industry, Mining and the Environment (IME) in South Africa. These interests involve a broad range of traditional and entrepreneurial biotechnological sciences including agriculture and food, diagnostics, veterinary science, bioinformatics, genomics, proteomics, manufacturing and environmental technologies. Through a portfolio of multi-institutional projects this new center will endeavor towards placing South Africa amongst the world leaders in the application of biotechnology.

The main objectives are to shape the future of biotechnology in the AH and IME biotechnology focus area in South Africa by: - Research and product development; - Partnering for global opportunities: - Business development and commercialisation; - Protecting and licensing intellectual property (IP); - Biotech financing strategies; - Capturing the biotech wave; - Developing emerging technologies; - Building capacity; - Creating opportunities for the current skills base.

A distinctive feature of BioPAD is the diversity of its consortium members and the commitment of each consortium to work collaboratively. Each has proposed ways in which it can benefit by the resources of partner institutions and made plans to exchange biological specimens, physical resources and personnel. This collaborative spirit promises to link the components of the consortia, leverage their respective skills and more closely integrate researchers who have traditionally worked in isolation. The fundamental purpose of BioPAD is to deepen the understanding of modern biotechnology and its uses, imparting a vision that reaches from the basic sciences to their applications.

It is within his framework that BioPAD proudly announces the future funding of the projects described below in the fields of Animal health and production, Industry, Mining and the Environment.

Industry related projects

The first project targets beneficiation of local raw materials and products derived from the aloe industry. Proprietary technologies will target the local production of high value fine chemicals destined for export markets. The establishment of a biotechnological SMME to take advantage of this attractive opportunity is envisaged.

In another project the consortium is pursuing a unique opportunity in the high-growth, high-value market for chiral chemicals used in pharmaceutical production. Biocatalysts from unique South-African biomes are employed to produce a wide range of single enantiomer chiral epoxides and diols in highly efficient, environmentally friendly processes. These chiral chemicals are versatile building blocks in the synthesis of numerous pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

One of the projects will focus on the development of a novel commercial technology package for the production of a flavourant used in the aroma industry. Critical to the success of this technology is a bio- transformation process step, using an enzyme biocatalyst. The focus of the project is to enable the development of a separate technology package for the production of this enzyme and the establishment of a SMME to supply a commercial plant with the required volumes of the biocatalyst. Through the establishment of an enzyme technology platform, further opportunities in the manufacture of other enzymes can be commercialised hence realising significant value to the economy in the field of biotechnology.

Many of the flavour and medicinal compounds in Rooibos tea are trapped within the cellulolytic plant material, resulting in poor extraction efficiency. This project therefore aims to identify a specific mix (cocktail) of microbial enzymes for improved extraction of flavour, antioxidants and soluble matter for Rooibos tea and its value-addition.

South Africa has a huge natural resource of micro-organisms, but also one that has hardly been utilised. The project aims to establish a business that focus on the production of natural flavours and fragrances from micro- organisms. The consortium of the project is already in the position to produce a food flavour on large scale. It is envisaged that two other flavours will be added to the product portfolio of the business during the span of this project.

Due to the unparalleled depths being exposed in South African goldmines, we now have unprecedented access to organisms from extreme environments (extremophiles). These organisms are adapted to the high temperatures and other environmental pressures found at these great depths. Such organisms can therefore provide genes for uniquely stable enzymes; a valuable asset in industrial processes. We intend to extract enzyme-encoding genes from deep mine environmental samples and express them in host organisms. With subsequent screening for activities against selected substrates, thermotolerant organisms and thermostable enzymes will be isolated that are suitable for bioremediation, industrial enzymatic processes, and selective bio- transformations of organic compounds.

One of the other projects intends to develop a new range of temperature sensitive dyes and food colourants based on astaxanthin and a novel natural protein. Astaxanthin in its natural state is red in colour, but in the presence of the protein, changes to dark blue. We will be using modern biotechnology techniques to isolate, characterise and produce the astaxanthin/protein complex for application within the food industry.

Animal Health and production

Heartwater is a tick-borne disease, which has been a scourge of South African livestock owners for over a hundred years. It is one of the most economically important animal diseases in the country, and throughout Africa, but there is no reliable vaccine available for use against it. Researchers at Onderstepoort have been working on heartwater for over 50 years, and recent advances with an experimental DNA vaccine suggest, that success may finally be on the horizon. This project will build on the latest progress, with the intention of commercialisation of an inexpensive and effective vaccine within the next six years.

Another project deals with the development and validation of a diagnostic reverse line blot kit to diagnose tick-borne blood parasites of domestic and wild animals more accurately. This will include the characterization of the parasites and comparison of the results obtained with techniques currently in use.

Psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) is a highly contagious and debilitating viral disease that affects wild and captive populations of psittacine birds. The disease is difficult to quarantine and there is no known cure. There are also no commercially available vaccines for the disease. The consortium is developing products for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of PBFD that will be invaluable to bird breeders, companion bird owners, and conservation agencies. Industry buy-in has been achieved from at least 2 bird breeders, both of whom are playing an active role in the project. The market for these products is already established and is small, but potentially highly lucrative.

Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP) is probably the most important disease threatening cattle production in Africa. By using phage display and cellular immunological methods, potentially protective T and B cell epitopes of the causative agent Mycoplasma mycoides subspecies mycoides SC will be identified. These epitopes will be expressed in a variety of vaccine vectors and tested for their ability to protect cattle against CBPP.

Another consortium will establish transgenic fish technology as a tool to understand feed conversion in fish. Specific objectives include the improvement of the protein/fat ratio in cultured fish and lower pollution from aquaculture. The established technologies will deliver competitive advantage for South Africa to significantly expand its share of the growing global aquaculture industry.

Aquaculture is a rapidly growing market especially in developing countries. Due to the intensive nature of aquaculture operations, the use of chemicals is undesirable from an environmental and consumer perspective. The use of organically certified biological products to prevent disease and improve yields in aquaculture is a very attractive technology. The proposed technology development will result in a process for the production of biological products. The process will be commercialised and result in growth of the Biotechnology SMME sector of the economy.

Although low concentrations of antibiotics added to feed of poultry and pigs increases the productivity, it leads to resistant strains of bacteria that can seriously affect human health. The European Union has prohibited this use of most antibiotics. We have developed natural plant products that may resolve this international problem.

Environmental projects

One of the consortia has developed a one stage completely mixed reactor system to remove sulphate from acid mine waters. In order to make the technology more cost effective to the coal and gold mines, this consortium is concentrating on finding a cheaper energy source to be used by the sulphate reducing bacteria, which are responsible for the reduction of sulphate in the acid mine water.

Another process developed over eight years of basic studies in sulphur cycle biotechnology, links the co-disposal of organic wastes as the carbon source in the biological treatment of acid mine drainage wastewaters. In addition to bio- desalination, neutralization and heavy metal removal operations, this novel technology platform generates sulphur and treated water as by-products, and provides an efficient disposal for intractable waste such as sewage sludge and a range of other organic wastes.

Mining projects

Bioleach technology, that has already been commercialised for gold and piloted for copper, will now be expanded for application to zinc refining. The novel biotechnology could be licensed for various zinc refining applications internationally. Locally in South Africa it could be applied to compete in the global refining market, and it could provide the technology for realising value from currently unexploited zinc deposits.

One of the BioPAD consortia together with support from a major mining house, will be investigating an unique and effective technology for inoculating copper sulphide heap- bioleaching operations. Existing heap-bio-leaching operations, annually producing US$0.9-billion worth of copper metal (a figure set to rise to US$1.5-billion within a few years), have suffered from start-up problems, often related to ineffective inoculation practices. This technology has the potential to unlock millions of dollars of value, and to make heap bio-leaching the technology of choice for the production of copper from sulphide deposits.

eGoli Biotechnology incubator

The eGoli bio-incubator has a major responsibility towards the commercialisation of biotechnology in South Africa. BioPAD has shown its commitment to the commercialisation of biotechnology by investing R5 million in the eGoli bio-incubator. These funds will be used to raise collateral investments for enabling start-up companies to role out their new technologies

In conclusion Life sciences and biotechnology offer opportunities to address many of the global needs relating to health, ageing, food and the environment, and to sustainable development. Broad public support is essential, and ethical and societal implications and concerns must be addressed. The scientific and technological revolution is a global reality, which creates new opportunities and challenges for all countries in the world, rich or poor.

Prof T E Cloete Interim CEO Biopad Chairperson: School for Biological Sciences University of Pretoria 0001 Pretoria South Africa


May 2003