Fulbright Fellowship sharpens UKZN plant pathology professor’s gene editing skills

Fulbright Research Fellow, Professor Augustine Gubba. Image: Supplied.

Fulbright Research Fellow, Professor Augustine Gubba. Image: Supplied.

Published Nov 3, 2022


By Christine Cuénod

Professor Augustine Gubba of the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) has spent a nine-month sabbatical at institutions in the USA - strengthening research collaborations that will contribute the latest advances in gene-editing technologies to his research programmes at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in developing plant virus resistance.

Gubba was awarded the Fellowship in 2019, but delays imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic prevented travel and meant he was only able to commence the visit in March 2022.

He has spent his time as a Fulbright Research Fellow with Professor Matthew Cuttule of Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (REC) and Dr Kaishu Ling of the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) at the US Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina.

Despite a gradual start as the world slowly emerged from the grips of the pandemic, his work has gathered pace. Gubba has engaged fully with research projects with both facilities, also enjoying being based at the Clemson Farm, a facility not dissimilar to UKZN’s Ukulinga Research Farm for agricultural trials.

At the REC, Gubba and Cuttule carried out surveys to identify weed species that act as reservoirs of viruses infecting vegetable crops grown in the state of South Carolina.

This exercise demonstrated the differences in farming practices in the USA and South Africa. Strategies and techniques in the USA involve farmers and growers planting a variety of crops, no matter the size of their land, and complementing this crop diversity with the use of technology to enhance farming activities.

Gubba’s interaction with growers presented the chance to share how farming is done in South Africa. He was able to disseminate findings from the survey during a Clemson University field day and at a meeting of the American Society of Horticultural Sciences in Chicago, where Gubba took the opportunity to become acquainted with the iconic city’s renowned architecture and vistas.

With Ling, Gubba is focusing on harnessing the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to develop plants with resistance to virus infection.

“This technology has emerged in the last 10 years and is finding utility in many disciplines that seek to manipulate different traits in a number of crops to enhance productivity,” said Gubba.

“With the regulatory challenges faced by genetically modified organisms (GMO), gene-edited plants could fill in the technological gap created by the lack of progress associated with GMO pants.”

With the USDA-ARS, Gubba is conducting laboratory, tissue culture and greenhouse work, all of which will help him apply CRISPR-Cas9 technology to his research at UKZN and open opportunities to work with colleagues interested in harnessing this powerful technology.

Gubba has also gained insight into the USDA’s use of Controlled Environment Agriculture to cultivate crops in disused shipping containers under LED lights with nutrients provided solely through enriched water. This low-maintenance technology reduces water usage by 95% when compared to outdoor crops - a promising benefit in the face of water scarcity and recurring droughts. The use of such technology in South Africa might be hampered by the electricity challenges the country is facing.

Gubba is originally from Zimbabwe, where he completed his undergraduate and Honours studies at the University of Zimbabwe before undertaking a Master’s at the University of London’s Wye College. His PhD research at Cornell University in the USA focused on plant virology, under the supervision of some of the leading researchers on the topic. He joined UKZN in 2000 where he has expanded his knowledge on GMO and gene editing using CRISPR-Cas9 technology.

Gubba’s expertise has led to his appointment as a GMO Officer for the South African government, where he reviews applications for GMO product registrations and research facility registrations. He is also a technical specialist for the South African National Accreditation System, assessing laboratories seeking accreditation for various techniques in molecular biology research. Gubba is also the African representative on the scientific committee of the International Committee for Plant Virus Epidemiology.

Gubba has made the most of his time in the marshy environment of South Carolina, practising his swing on the state’s pristine golf courses and visiting its beautiful beaches at the weekends in between honing his academic and research skills.