What is Biosystematics?

Think National Geographic (National Geographic - Strange things in the Amazon Forest) or David Attenborough (Planet Earth II) explorations. Think nature loving and naturalists (those studying nature). Think walking in a new pristine paradise where no one has really been before and you cannot stop taking in all the beautiful organisms around you. What are they called? How can I give them a name? How can I tell other people about them? Where did they come from? Why are they so different from any other place? And how did that bird that is commonly identified as an intruder that you now recognise, come into this pristine place?

The list goes on and on regarding what you can do with Biosystematics and the various questions you can answer.

  • Essentially it involves the study of giving, or sometimes changing, the names of new organisms (or other new things such as genes).
  • To develop tools for naturalists and nature lovers and others in industry or government, to identify species.
  • To study how similar-looking organisms are related to each other and why.
  • To determine when this happened in evolutionary time.
  • To figure out what caused these species to develop and look so different.
  • And last but not least, to provide mechanisms to enable other biologists and policy-makers to decide if a certain land area or species needs to be conserved, how to study biological invasions, to identify species in various legal and illegal trades, and to establish visual lists of all the organisms occurring in an area, country, continent, or the world.

In short, this field is dedicated to those of us who can get lost in nature …

Our research

In the research group of Dr Gryzenhout, the focus is largely on fungi, since she is passionately crazy about them. However, there are links also to insects, plants, and microbes. In certain biological fields the need for people exploring, discovering, studying and naming species are not that dire. However, in for instance the field of studying fungi (see Mycology under Other specialisation groups), there is a great need for anyone interested in giving these species life. There are very few people who can do that left in the world.

Most of our projects thus focus on bioexploration, taxonomy (describing newly discovered species), biodiversity, conservation, biological invasions, enabling identification of native fungi and those that are problematic, and how such knowledge can be used to understand their ecology. We employ fundamental approaches such as morphological studies, using the latest sequencing technologies and bioinformatics to detect all of the fungi present in certain environmental samples, such as soil or the inside of a plant. Once discovered, we also see if these fungi can perhaps be used in the fields of enzymatic exploration, nanoparticles, and for other attributes.

We develop tools to identify species using both morphology and DNA sequences, to help any other person to identify the fungi we work on. For instance, popular field guides to mushrooms and other larger fungi in Southern Africa were published recently. We are also active in the exciting field of DNA Barcoding. DNA Barcoding identifies unknown species of plants, animals, or microorganisms by creating a distinctive DNA sequence, and comparing the sequence to dedicated internet databases. In some cases, such a database first needs to be developed from scratch. DNA barcodes can also be used in other applications, such as forensic studies, to identify unknown samples that are traded illegally (e.g., smuggled plants, poached animals, etc.), human, animal, and plant pathogens, and contamination in the food industry.

The Biosystematics team

We are a group consisting of two postdoctoral fellows, four PhD, thirteen MSc, and three Honours students. Projects roughly cover the following themes:

  • Bioexploration, biogeography, biosystematics, and barcoding of our rich and vastly unexplored fungal biodiversity. Projects here include fungi from the Tsitsikamma area, Pretoria, Kwazulu/Natal, Western Cape, Mpumalanga, and Free State provinces. Here we work with an invaluabe citizen scientist network across Southern Africa.
  • Magic mushrooms!
  • Mycobiomes of plants and soils and even the skins of frogs.
  • Plant-associated fungi as well as where they occur in soils or in human environments.
  • Fungal invasions.
  • Fungal conservation.
  • The application of nanoparticles as antimicrobials or to enhance certain properties of fungi.


Elfrieda van den Berg (Marketing Manager)
T: +27 51 401 2531

Dilahlwane Mohono (Faculty Officer)
T: +27 58 718 5284

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