Page 80 - University of Pretoria RESEARCH REVIEW 2016
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NATURAL environments
Of all the continents, Africa faces the largest challenges concerning soil conservation and food security, in the face of increasing populations and environmental change. With the growing understanding that soil microorganisms play an important role in soil health, and therefore in the growth and productivity of economic crops, it is becoming increasingly important to understand the diversity and function of soil microorganisms.
 AfSM meeting at the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at UP.
Scientists from the University of Pretoria and ten sub-Saharan African countries, along with two international scientific advisors, met in mid-2016 at the University to launch a new and exciting research project: the African Soil Microbiology project (AfSM). This three-year project, funded by USAID and the Oppenheimer Foundation, and administered by
the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), aims to undertake a broad- scale survey of soil microbiology across a significant proportion of the African continent, using the latest Next Generation DNA sequencing and computational technologies. Soil microbiology diversity ‘fingerprints’ will then be correlated with a range of variables, including soil chemistry, regional and climate parameters, land use, vegetation type and more.
Dr Thulani Makhalanyane, Deputy-Director of CMEG, received the Ambassador of the Year award at the International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME) symposium held in Montreal, Canada
in 2016, in recognition of his leadership role and contribution to promoting the fields of microbial ecology and biodiversity research in South Africa. Microbial ecology is still an underdeveloped field in Africa, yet vital in the growing appreciation of the value and importance of global and regional biodiversity.
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Collaborators from the partner nations (South
Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire) are undertaking a series of soil sampling ‘campaigns’, with samples recovered from 50km-spaced GPS- located sites across each country. Soil samples are returned to the University of Pretoria where CMEG researchers, together with young researchers from each of the partner nations, will process the samples, extract metagenomic DNA, and analyse the Next Generation phylogenetic sequence data.
This unique multinational project, the first such study ever to be undertaken in Africa at this scale (and, indeed, in the world), is expected to unravel the complexities of soil microbiological diversity across sub-Saharan Africa. The results of the research will contribute to our understanding of soil fertility, of soil degradation and the future impacts of climate change, and of important health issues such as soil- borne pathogens.
The launch of the project was featured in an article by Sarah Wild in Nature News (09 November, 539, 152; ‘Quest to map Africa’s soil microbiome begins’). The article has generated considerable interest from researchers and organisations.

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