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14 May 2019 | Story Thabo Kessah | Photo Tsepo Moeketsi
Prof Ashafa
Prof Ashafa’s research documents plants used by the Basotho in the management of different ailments.

The Phytomedicine and Phytopharmacology Research Programme (PPRP) in the Department of Plant Sciences on the Qwaqwa Campus researches the biological effects of medicinal plants used in the folkloric medicine of the Eastern Free State, particularly to explore the values and contribution of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) towards broader scientific research. This is according to the programme’s principal investigator and researcher, NRF C2-rated researcher, Professor Anofi Ashafa. 

 “Our research is mainly aimed at documenting plants used by the Basotho in the management of different ailments and to further discover, isolate, and purify active phytoconstituents that are responsible for disease curation or amelioration, thereby assisting in the global promotion of accessible and affordable medication in developing countries,” said Prof Ashafa. 

Since 2012, the PPRP has worked extensively on Basotho medicinal plants (BMP) used as antimicrobials, antioxidants, antidiabetics, antitubercular, anticancer, anthelmintic, and antidiarrheal agents, starting from biological activities up to the  evaluation of the toxicity of these plants for the kidney, liver, and heart functions in order to establish safe dosage parameters. These activities have led to the discovery of four potent antidiabetic biomolecules that are awaiting the processes of patency and commercialisation. Additional outputs include 104 published peer-reviewed articles , 7 postdoctoral fellows, 6 PhDs, 9 master’s, and 16 honours graduates. 

“Our research informs teaching and the development of expertise in ethnobotany, 
phytomedicine, and phytopharmacology in order to contribute to the National Development Plan (NDP) through human capacity development, skills, and knowledge transfer.

The group is also investigating some medicinal plants on the endangered red list of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), through micropropagation and field trials as well as proposing conservation strategies to preserve these valuable species.

The PPRP consists of postdoctoral fellows, PhD, master’s, and honours students and research is done in collaboration with several local and international universities as well as the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa. 


News Archive

Young researchers are equipped to participate in projects relevant in global context
2017-09-05

 Description: Wheat genomics Tags: bioinformatics, Dr Renée Prins, Department of Plant Sciences, DNA and RNA, data sets 

This group of early career researchers received bioinformatics
training in Worcester in the UK from Dr Diane Saunders of the
John Innes Centre in the UK.
Photo: Supplied

The interdisciplinary field that develops methods and software tools to understand biological data is known as bioinformatics. According to Dr Renée Prins, a research fellow in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State, there are few tertiary institutions in South Africa that offer a postgraduate degree in Bioinformatics.

“Most institutions focus either on humans, human diseases, forest trees and their pathogens.  They usually do not have spare capacity to assist researchers, for instance, those working on crops in the agricultural sector,” Dr Prins said.

Big data sets need significant skills

With the advancements made in genomics such as high throughput DNA marker platforms and next-generation sequencing technologies, the data sets biologists have to deal with have grown massively big and cannot be dealt with unless you have significant computer skills.

Dr Prins believes that all young researchers need some level of training in this field to be effective in future. The British Council Researcher Links, being run by the Newton Fund, gives early career researchers across selected partner countries the opportunity to form international connections through fully funded workshops and travel grants. Dr Prins made use of this opportunity and with the assistance of the Department of Research Development at the UFS, she arranged for Dr Diane Saunders of the John Innes Centre in the UK, a bioinformatician of note, to present training to a group of 20 early career researchers in Worcester in the UK.

Providing training with Dr Saunders were two other bioinformaticians from the UK, Dr Burkhard Steuernagel (John Innes Centre) and Dr Robert Davey (Earlham Institute). From the UFS side, Eleanor van der Westhuizen and Dr Henriëtte van den Berg (former UFS academic) acted as mentors, providing guidance on funding opportunities and career development skills.

Participating in projects in a global context
The researchers attending the training came from research institutions or academia, and they work involving plants (predominantly wheat) or plant pathogens. A limited number of participants from the commercial sector, including private South African companies focusing on plant breeding and molecular genetics lab work on agriculturally important crops also benefited from the training. 

“Tertiary institutions in South Africa have the obligation to ensure that young scientists are equipped with bioinformatics skills. If they are not equipped with the necessary skills, they will not be able to participate in research projects that are relevant in a global context,” said Dr Prins. 

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