Inaugural Lecture: Professor Suren Singh

Inaugural Lecture: Professor Suren Singh


Media Statement by the Durban University of Technology

The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Durban University of Technology, Professor Ahmed C Bawa, has pleasure in inviting you to the inaugural lecture of Professor Suren Singh, the Head of the Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology in the Faculty of Applied Sciences at DUT.

Prof Singh will deliver his inaugural lecture: ENZYMEs: The cyclic journey with a hot loving fungus tomorrow (Friday, August 2, 2013) at the Hotel School Conference Centre, DUT Ritson Campus.

Prof Singh, who holds a BSc, BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD (Microbiology) from the then University of Durban Westville (now UKZN), currently heads a very young and vibrant Enzyme Technology Research Group, which focuses on the production and application of thermostable enzymes important for the food, detergent, textile pulp and paper industries as well as the environment. This research is important in establishing biological alternatives to current chemical methods. In order to follow ever-evolving trends in enzyme technology, he expanded his projects to investigate directed evolution techniques for the improvement of the catalytic efficiencies of enzymes and their applications.

Professor Suren Singh assumed the position of lecturer in September 1997 at the former M.L. Sultan Technikon (now DUT) when research was still at its infancy. His arrival brought a much-awaited impetus to research at the then Technikon. Within five years, he was able to establish a core research group in Industrial Biotechnology and achieved a Y2 – NRF rating in 2002 and a C1 – NRF rating in 2007 and 2013.

In 2000, Prof Singh was one of 13 participants chosen worldwide from developing countries to attend a course on Industrial Biotechnology at the German Centre for Biotechnology in Braunschweig. His research over the past 15 years has always attempted to push the boundaries, and his group has produced numerous “world firsts” with his hot loving fungus Thermomyces lanuginosus, the genome sequence being one of them.

In a duration of six years (1998 – 2006), he moved up from lecturer to Full Professor and has served as the Head of the Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology at DUT for more than 10 years (since 2000) and as Acting Executive Dean of the then Faculty of Engineering, Science and the Built Environment for 19 months (2004 – 2006). Through his position as Head, he has contributed significantly to creating a culture of research, garnered substantial external support for research projects, significantly increased the number of postgraduate students, improved staff qualifications and catalysed research output. This has placed this department as the lead research department within the Faculty of Applied Sciences and DUT for more than a decade.

Through his own initiatives and funding drives, he has ensured the acquisition of excellent infrastructure and equipment at DUT. To date, he has attracted over R20 million in funding from the DUT, the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Department of Science and Technology and other international and industrial sources. His recent acquisition of more than R20 million through the DoHET Infrastructure funding together with DUT to construct state-of-the-art labs for his Department demonstrates his leadership.

Networking with numerous national and international scientists from Austria, Germany, Portugal, United States, Slovakia, Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Sweden, China, has been his strength, and his NRF Bilateral agreements with Sweden (2006 – 2009) and China (2008 – 2014) valued at more than R1.5 million, are testimony to this.

Professor Singh has consistently built up an impressive publication track record in high impact factor journals (IF average > 2), with more than 50 papers published in international journals since 1999 with an H-index of 18 and an i10 index of 25. As research leader, he has presented papers at 32 International conferences across the globe as well as at numerous national and regional conference meetings. In terms of building research capacity at DUT, he has hosted and supervised 13 postdoctoral candidates and successfully supervised and graduated 5 Doctoral and 15 Master’s students. Currently, he is supervising 18 Master’s and 3 Doctoral candidates.

In recognition of his NRF rating and research activity for the period 2005 – 2008, Prof Singh was given the Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award as well as DUT’s Researcher of the Year award for 2009/2010.

Prof Singh has held the positions of Vice President (2004 – 2006), President (2006 – 2009) and Treasurer (2009 – 2010) of the South African Society for Microbiology (SASM). He served as Chair of the KZN branch of SASM for seven years (2000 – 2007).

He is an active member of several national and international scientific professional bodies and has served as chair of numerous regional, national and international conferences held in South Africa since 2000.

In addition to high-level catalysis, Prof Singh has completed several marathons, including the Comrades Marathon in 2002. He also has an intense passion for road cycling and has completed nine Cape Argus PicknPay Cycle Tour races as well as several national cycling races.

Brief Description of the Research: ENZYMEs: The cyclic journey with a hot loving fungus

The non-cellulolytic Thermomyces lanuginosus is a widespread and frequently isolated thermophilic fungus. We have shown that this fungus have been reported to produce high levels of cellulase-free xylanase both in shake-flask and bioreactor cultivations but intraspecies variability in terms of xylanase production is apparent. Furthermore all strains produce low extracellular levels of other hemicellulases involved in hemicellulose hydrolysis. Crude and purified hemicellulases from this fungus are stable at high temperatures in the range of 50-80°C and over a broad pH range (3-12). Various strains are reported to produce a single xylanase with molecular masses varying between 23 and 29 kDa and pI values between 3.7 and 4.1. The gene encoding the T. lanuginosus xylanase has been cloned and sequenced and is shown to be a member of family 11 glycosyl hydrolases. Error prone PCR was successfully applied to improve the thermostability and pH stability of a xyn A from T. lanuginosus DSM 5826 which was functionally expressed in E. coli as a LacZ-fusion protein. Currently we have superior xylanase variants functional at 80 – 90C at pH 10 for 2h. Successful expression has been achieved with Pichia stipitus and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The crystal structure of the xylanase indicates that the enzyme consists of two ?-sheets and one a-helix and forms a rigid complex with the three central sugars of xyloheptaose whereas the peripheral sugars might assume different configurations thereby allowing branched xylan chains to be accepted. The presence of an extra disulfide bridge between the ?-strand and the a-helix, as well as to an increase in the density of charged residues throughout the xylanase might contribute to the thermostability. The ability of T. lanuginosus to produce high levels of cellulase-free thermostable xylanase has made the fungus an attractive source of thermostable xylanase with potential as a bleach-boosting agent in the pulp and paper industry and as an additive in the baking industry. Further studies on xylosidases, chitinases, phytases, lipases and other hemicellulases have been the hallmark of this project. The genome of the fungus has been sequenced confirming the presence of 225 carbohydrates. This has finally unraveled the mystery of how this fungus survives utilizing just one major enzyme.

A high resolution picture of Professor Suren Singh is available on request from Sinegugu Ndlovu.

The event will take place as follows:

Date: Friday August 2, 2013
Time: 18h00 for 18h30
Venue: Hotel School Conference Centre, DUT Ritson Campus, Corner Winterton Walk and Ritson Road

For comment or more information, please contact Prof Singh on 083 468 4292.

Issued by:

Sinegugu Ndlovu
Manager: Communications
Botanic Mansion
Division of Corporate Affairs
Steve Biko Campus
Gate 1