Prof. Sanushka Naidoo

President, University of Pretoria

I am the programme leader of the Eucalyptus and Pine
Pathogen Interactions (EPPI) Group at FABI, University of Pretoria. 

We aim to understand the host responses to invading pathogens with a further view to improve defence responses in such forest trees. My ongoing research is dedicated to uncovering the defence arsenal in Eucalyptus and pine based on the study of the host defensome (or defence transcriptome). 

We study the interaction between Eucalyptus with the insect pest, Leptocybe invasaEucalyptus with the oomycete pathogen, Phytophthora cinnamomiEucalyptus with Chrysoporthe austroafricana and Pinus patula with Fusarium circinatum.

These pathosystems provide the biological platform to address key questions such as: 

  1. What is the molecular basis of tolerance and susceptibility? 
  2. What are the signature defence responses to different types of pests and pathogens?
  3. What are the convergent defence responses in the host? 
  4. Which regulatory sequences and defence genes could be targeted for enhancing defence in Eucalyptus or pine?

Prof. Irene Barnes

Vice President, University of Pretoria

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology and a research leader in the Tree Protection Cooperative Program
(TPCP) and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI), University of Pretoria. 

My research focuses mainly on the taxonomy, phylogenetics and population biology of fungal pathogens that infect forest trees. This work includes determining the biodiversity of fungi in plantations and describing new fungal species, tracing the infection pathways of some of the most serious forest pathogens through population genetic studies, and investigating pathogenicity and host specificity factors through comparative genomics. Fungi of particular interest in my group include the pine needle pathogens Dothistroma and Lecanosticta, and the vascular wilt and root rot pathogens in Ceratocystis.

Dr. Steven Hussey

SECRetary, University of Pretoria

My research focuses on understanding the roles of transcription factors, epigenetics and chromatin structure in the regulation of wood development. My research group has used functional genomics and protein-DNA assays to decipher the regulatory functions of a number of secondary cell wall-related transcription factor genes  in Arabidopsis and Eucalyptus

This work includes deciphering the biological roles of secondary cell wall-regulating transcription factors such as SND2, identifying the gene targets and dynamics of their activation by Eucalyptus master regulators of secondary wall formation in fibres and vessels, uncovering the associations of activating and repressive histone modifications during wood formation, determining the accessible chromatin landscape of developing secondary xylem, and designing and producing several hundred synthetic Eucalyptus transcription factors and promoter constructs linked to wood formation as standardized parts for modular assembly methods in synthetic biology.

Dr. Clint Rhode

Treasurer, University of Pretoria

My main research interest is in Animal Genetics, with particular focus on population genetics/genomics and molecular breeding of marine organisms of economic importance to South Africa and applications in conservation and aquaculture. 

Current projects include research on abalone, scallop and kob . As part of my other academic duties, I also teach undergraduate modules in introductory genetics and biotechnology, as well as a postgraduate module in genetic data analysis.

Prof. Albe van der Merwe

Communications Officer, University of Pretoria (Resigned September 2019)

My scientific interest is in population genetics and phylogeography of plant pathogenic fungi and the plants they infect. I use Chrysoporthe austroafricanaC. deuterocubensis and C. cubensis as fungal models to test hypotheses about how plant pathogens evolved, how they spread from one area to another, and what the future impact of anthropogenic phenomena such as climate change might be. 

I am investigating the population genetics of these fungi from various countries and continents, using molecular markers to infer statistics describing populations’ outcrossing abilities, recombination rates and linkage disequilibrium, and gene flow. I also have a special interest in gene trees and coalescent theory as applied to these fungi. An exciting era is about to dawn on forest tree and pathogen genetics, and I am proud and privileged to be a part of it.

As Prof. Michio Kaku said, we are moving from scientific discovery to scientific mastery, and I believe that the current efforts by FABI and its programmes will play a crucial role in realizing this dream.

Additional Members

Dr. Aletta Bester van der Merwe

University of Stellenbosch

Dr Bester-van der Merwe is a Senior Lecturer and Group Leader of the Shark and Ray Genetics Research Group at Stellenbosch University. Her disciplinary expertise includes molecular population- and evolutionary genetics with the aim to incorporate such data into the management and conservation of commercially important species. 

Dr Bester-van der Merwe’s work finds further applications in wildlife forensics and law enforcement, and as such she regularly serves as expert witness in poaching and illicit hunting/fishing court cases. She has a wide network of partnerships with governmental organizations, NGOs and academics, and rated as an established researcher by the National Research Foundation.

Dr. Jean Mollet

University of witwatersrand

I am currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology at Wits University. I obtained my BSc (1986); Hons BSc (1987) and MSc (1989) at Stellenbosch University; and my PhD, at Wits University (2013). 

I have been at Wits since 1995. I am involved in and passionate about teaching undergraduate and postgraduate courses in various Genetics topics. I have supervised Honours (20), Masters (5) and PhD (1) research projects involving plant genetic engineering and microsatellite DNA markers for genetic mapping. 

My lab focusses on building capacity in the field of research
involving genetic divergence and hybridization in bird and plant species to inform conservation in southern Africa. Our long term goal is to set up methodologies and techniques to strengthen research and research capacity into the genetics of speciation and into the role of anthropogenic driven changes to the environment, such as climate and land-use change, which can alter bird, plant and insect distributions, their breeding success and survival which has
implications in an ecological context.

As my other research interests have been around teaching and learning innovations, I have also done research into investigating worldview differences concerning biotechnology, and how they contribute to
epistemological barriers in teaching and learning in two SADC institutions, i.e. Wits University and the University of Namibia.

Dr. Marieka Gryzenhout van der Merwe

University of Free State

Since my post-graduate studies at the University of Pretoria, I have been passionate about studying fungi (mycology). During my PhD I developed a world monograph of the important tree pathogen fungal family Cryphonectriaceae. The book publication was preceded by 25 internationally reviewed publications, which was also done as collaborations with fellow students or other scientists. 

My research instilled in me a hunger to discover fungal species, describe them and untangle taxonomic problems. Moreover, I have a practical approach and making my knowledge available to diverse end-users who do not necessarily have the appropriate skills and background, is gratifying. Skills in classical taxonomy, especially when paired with molecular approaches, are scarce in any biological field. My current position as biosystematist in the Department of Genetics at the University of the Free State, is thus conducive to follow my research ideals fully.

Mrs Robyn Jacob


Robyn Jacob is a Molecular Biologist with a keen interest in Bioinformatics, conducting her research at the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI), Kwa-Zulu Natal. 

Her research targets both the Variety Improvement Programme and the Crop Protection Programme. Current projects include uncovering defense mechanisms in both the incompatible and compatible interactions between sugarcane cultivars and the largest pest in the sugarcane industry, the stem borer, Eldana saccharinaOther research interests include the identification and isolation of tissue-specific promoters and involvement in SASRI’s genetic modification programme.

Student Members

Mrs Alisa Postma Smit

SASBi representative, University of Pretoria

Alisa Postma is a Research Assistant and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the University of Pretoria. 

She obtained a BSc and BSc(Hons) in Genetics at the University of Pretoria and an MSc in Genetics at Stellenbosch University. Her current research interests include genomics and transcriptomics analyses of forestry pests and pathogens. 

She is actively involved in student training, having been a practical demonstrator and tutor for numerous subjects at University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University as well as co-supervising several postgraduate students.

Ms Ncité Lima Da Camara

University of Stellenbosch

Ncité Da Camara is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Biology (Bioinformatics) in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics of the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science of Stellenbosch University. 

She completed a BSc degree in Biodiversity and Ecology, as well as a BSc Honours degree and a Master’s degree in Molecular Biology (Bioinformatics) at Stellenbosch University. She is experienced in bioinformatics and wet bench laboratory work. 

Ncité is a member of the South African Genetics Society executive student council and part of the South African Society for Bioinformatics Newsletter Editorial Team, as well as actively involved in many community outreach projects. She is passionate about learning as well as sharing knowledge. 

Her current research aims are to develop, evaluate, and implement an analytical pipeline for the analysis of multiplex immunoassay data.

Ms Lerato Diseko

University of Free State

PhD in Human Molecular Genetics. My study is on HIV and how the host genetic make-up makes on susceptible or resistance to HIV. 

Mr. Ernest Makua

Tshwane University of Technology (Resigned December 2019)

Kgoana Tebatso Ernest Makua completed his MSc in Animal Sciences at the Tshwane Institute of Technology, looking at genetic determinants of meat quality. He speaks English, Venda, Sepedi, Zulu, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Tswana, Swati and Xhosa.

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