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Durban researchers ground-breaking discovery

Durban researchers ground-breaking discovery

Microbiology lecturer and doctoral student at Durban University of Technology (DUT), Nokuthula Mchunu-Nxumalo, has completed ground-breaking research in sequencing of a thermophilic genome. Mchunu-Nxumalo, from Port Shepstone, lectures undergraduate students at the Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology and she has completed part of her doctoral thesis at University of Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Centre for Chemical Biology (CCB).

Biotechnology and Food Technology HOD, Professor Suren Singh said the joint project by DUT and USM forms part of Mchunu-Nxumalo’s doctoral thesis. The study is co-supervised by Professor Kugen Permaul and CCB CEO, Professor Maqsudul Alam, a world renowned scientist with a multitude of accolades and publications. Professor Alam has also featured in the international scientific journal Nature and is recognised for sequencing the genomes of papaya, rubber plants and jute.

Professor Singh said: “Mchunu-Nxumalo spent close to a year at CCB in Malaysia and has made excellent progress in completing the sequencing of an industrially-important thermophilic fungal genome, a world first. This can be likened to sequencing of the human genome which determines the exact order of the letters A-C-T-G.”

Genomic sequencing refers to a combination of laboratory experiments and computer processing that elucidates the entire DNA sequence of a living organism. Numerous organisms have had their complete DNA sequence “read”, from simple bacteria to insects, trees and humans.

“Sequencing of the human genome is one of man’s greatest scientific accomplishments, taking approximately 12 years since 1989 to produce a draft version. To this day, it is only around 90% complete. This is due, in part, to the large amount of DNA we possess and also since about 8% contains repetitive sequences that contain no genes,” said Professor Singh.

Human genomes are made up of over three billion individual building blocks, however, they do not contain the most DNA – some worms have more DNA than humans. If unwound and arranged in a linear fashion, the building blocks would reach an incredible 1.8 metres in length. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that this represents the DNA in just one of the ten thousand billion cells that make up the human body.

Mchunu-Nxumalo’s project, however, focused on a much smaller genome from a thermophilic fungus. These fungi prefer hot conditions and survive at temperatures around 60°C. They produce industrially important enzymes that function at higher temperatures as they work faster and are more temperature stable than other biological catalysts. This novel fungus, Thermomyces lanuginosus isolated by Prof Singh in 1995, produces several such enzymes that break down biological polymers such as starch, plant residue, fats and crustacean shells to produce useful by-products.

The project will allow identification of existing and novel genes from this fungus for potential biotechnological applications. Enzymes from this organism are used in paper and pulp, food and beverage, medical, animal feed, agricultural and biofuels industries and are also important in reducing environmental pollution.
Permaul said Mchunu-Nxumalo’s research shows that there is a greater than 90% match between the DNA and RNA versions of the fungal genome. After genomic sequencing, she has been successful in cloning 10 genes from this organism that produces degradative enzymes.

“The identified genes will be used to mass-produce enzymes that will be useful in industrial applications and processes. She intends producing at least two scientific articles from the results of her project as well as file patents for genes that produce enzymes of industrial importance,” he said.

Mchunu-Nxumalo also participated in the SA-Swedish Bilateral Research Project between DUT and Lund University as part of her master’s study. On her return to South Africa, she will team up with Professors Singh and Permaul in a collaborative study on DNA sequencing of indigenous plants.

This research places the Enzyme Technology Research Group at DUT led by Professors Singh and Permaul in the forefront of research in the application and genetic engineering of enzymes relevant for industry. The Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology offers research areas in Water and Waste Water Technology, Enzyme Technology and Plant Biotechnology. It is recognised as one of the leading departments, in building research capacity, within its discipline amongst Universities of Technology in South Africa.

USM’s Vice-Chancellor, Tan Sri Dato’ Dzulkifli and Professor Alam will meet with DUT Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ahmed Bawa and the Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology on 26 August 2011 at the University’s Hotel School Conference Centre. The two universities will sign a memorandum of understanding to establish future research prospects.

USM is an internationally-acclaimed research intensive institute and a recipient of the Asian Innovation Award. It offers a wide range of courses to more than 28 000 undergraduate and postgraduate students The university focuses on research in the field of Pure Sciences, Applied Sciences, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Building Science and Technology, Social Sciences, Humanities and Education.

For more information, please contact:
Professor Suren Singh
HOD: Biotechnology and Food Technology
CEO Food Bio-Innovations
Office: 031 373 5321
Mobile: 083 468 4292

Professor Kugen Permaul
Biotechnology Research Supervisor
Office: 031 373 5327
Mobile: 083 788 8578

Lecturer Nokuthula Mchunu-Nxumalo
Biotechnology and Food Technology
Mobile: 083 793 8517
E-mail: nokuthula@dut.ac.za