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30 October 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs

The Department of Science and Technology has extended two of the National Research Foundation’s SARChI research chairs at the University of the Free State (UFS). 

The Research Chair in Diseases and Quality of Field Crops, together with the Research Chair in Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens, have both been extended for another five years. 

Prof Maryke Labuschagne, currently Professor of Plant Breeding in the Department of Plant Sciences, is leading the chair on Diseases and Quality of Field Crops.

The Chair on Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens is headed by Prof Felicity Burt from the Division of Virology in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research, says it was the hard work and commitment of Profs Labuschagne and Burt that resulted in the extension of the SARChI research chairs. “They have excelled in terms of student supervision and publications in high-impact international journals.  They also serve as mentors for young academics, postdoctoral fellows, and colleagues through their passion for their different fields of interest.”

Prof Witthuhn believes that this extension of the two SARChI chairs speaks of the progress that the UFS has made in terms of developing itself as a research-led university. “We are proud of the two senior academics for their supervision, mentorship, and leadership and their contribution to building our reputation,” she says. 

Diseases and Quality of Field Crops

The focus of the research chair in Diseases and Quality of Field Crops is on advancing food security and nutrition in Africa and contributing to poverty reduction and achieving sustainability goals. 

Prof Labuschagne says despite recent advances, the headlines regarding hunger and food security remain alarming: one in nine people on earth will go to bed hungry every night. Globally, 800 million people do not have enough to eat to be healthy, and a third of all deaths among children under five in developing countries are linked to undernourishment. 

She believes the uniqueness and strength of the research chair lies in a two-pronged approach, namely the breeding of cereal crops for resistance to fungal diseases, and improving the quality of crops for processing and consumption, thus making an impact on food security in South Africa and the rest of Africa through this collaborative effort. 

She is confident that the extension of the research chair will allow them to continue and to expand their research, “which has built up a lot of momentum”.

Besides the 12 PhD and 8 MSc degrees they delivered in the first five years, they also contributed significant research outputs and cultivar releases. She adds that they would like to expand on the significant international collaboration they have established. 

Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens

According to Prof Burt, the SARChI chair in Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens builds on existing research strengths at the UFS and aims to contribute towards identifying and investigating medically significant arboviruses and zoonotic viruses in the country.
 
“To date, the research chair has facilitated progress towards establishing serosurveillance studies for various vector-borne viruses, specifically Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus, a tick-borne and zoonotic virus that causes severe disease with fatalities.”

The team of researchers operating within this research chair is currently also performing studies to determine the seroprevalence of severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in the Free State.

Prof Burt has always taken the importance of community engagement into account, and with the current pandemic, she believes that it is now more important than ever to increase public awareness of zoonotic diseases.

She emphasises that the majority of new and emerging viruses are zoonotic in origin and that the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic highlights the impact of an emerging zoonotic pathogen on society. Therefore, she feels that it is important to build capacity in this field and to focus research efforts on identifying and understanding where these pathogens cycle in nature, the potential for spill-over to humans, and what the drivers are for the emergence of these pathogens.

Prof Burt trusts that the renewal of the research chair will allow them to take advantage of the new biosafety laboratory that the UFS has invested in. “This will permit us to research pathogens that were previously excluded from our programme due to biosafety considerations.  The chair will furthermore contribute towards enhancing, strengthening, and developing research and knowledge in the field of epidemiology and pathogenesis of vector-borne and zoonotic viruses,” she says. 

News Archive

UFS physicists publish in prestigious Nature journal
2017-10-16

Description: Boyden Observatory gravitational wave event Tags: Boyden Observatory, gravitational wave event, Dr Brian van Soelen, Hélène Szegedi, multi-wavelength astronomy 
Hélène Szegedi and Dr Brian van Soelen are scientists in the
Department of Physics at the University of the Free State.

Photo: Charl Devenish

In August 2017, the Boyden Observatory in Bloemfontein played a major role in obtaining optical observations of one of the biggest discoveries ever made in astrophysics: the detection of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event.
 
An article reporting on this discovery will appear in the prestigious science journal, Nature, in October 2017. Co-authors of the article, Dr Brian van Soelen and Hélène Szegedi, are from the Department of Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS). Both Dr Van Soelen and Szegedi are researching multi-wavelength astronomy.
 
Discovery is the beginning of a new epoch in astronomy
 
Dr van Soelen said: “These observations and this discovery are the beginning of a new epoch in astronomy. We are now able to not only undertake multi-wavelength observations over the whole electromagnetic spectrum (radio up to gamma-rays) but have now been able to observe the same source in both electromagnetic and gravitational waves.”
 
Until recently it was only possible to observe the universe using light obtained from astronomical sources. This all changed in February 2016 when LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) stated that for the first time they had detected gravitational waves on 14 September 2015 from the merger of two black holes. Since then, LIGO has announced the detection of two more such mergers. A fourth was just reported (27 September 2017), which was the first detected by both LIGO and Virgo. However, despite the huge amount of energy released in these processes, none of this is detectable as radiation in any part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Since the first LIGO detection astronomers have been searching for possible electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave detections. 
 
Large international collaboration of astronomers rushed to observe source
 
On 17 August 2017 LIGO and Virgo detected the first ever gravitational waves resulting from the merger of two neutron stars. Neutron star mergers produce massive explosions called kilonovae which will produce a specific electromagnetic signature. After the detection of the gravitational wave, telescopes around the world started searching for the optical counterpart, and it was discovered to be located in an elliptical galaxy, NGC4993, 130 million light years away. A large international collaboration of astronomers, including Dr Van Soelen and Szegedi, rushed to observe this source.
 
At the Boyden Observatory, Dr Van Soelen and Szegedi used the Boyden 1.5-m optical telescope to observe the source in the early evening, from 18 to 21 August. The observations obtained at Boyden Observatory, combined with observations from telescopes in Chile and Hawaii, confirmed that this was the first-ever detection of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event. Combined with the detection of gamma-rays with the Fermi-LAT telescope, this also confirms that neutron star mergers are responsible for short gamma-ray bursts.  
 
The results from these optical observations are reported in A kilonova as the electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational-wave source published in Nature in October 2017.
 
“Our paper is one of a few that will be submitted by different groups that will report on this discovery, including a large LIGO-Virgo paper summarising all observations. The main results from our paper were obtained through the New Technology Telescope, the GROND system, and the Pan-STARRS system. The Boyden observations helped to obtain extra observations during the first 72 hours which showed that the light of the source decreased much quicker than was expected for supernova, classifying this source as a kilonova,” Dr Van Soelen said.

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