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All girl-group of University of Pretoria scientists prepare to set sail on insight expedition

Caitlyn Fourie, Sade Magabotha, Mancha Mabaso and Francinah Ratsoma will spend 36 days aboard the Agulhas II ship. Picture: Supplied

Caitlyn Fourie, Sade Magabotha, Mancha Mabaso and Francinah Ratsoma will spend 36 days aboard the Agulhas II ship. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 6, 2021


Pretoria - An all-female team of scientists from the University of Pretoria will be joining the South African ice-breaking polar supply and research ship RV SA Agulhas II in order to reveal new insights into micro-organisms in the South Atlantic.

The four postgraduate students from the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology will be setting sail to the South Atlantic to spend 36 days aboard the Agulhas II ship.

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The expedition, operated by the National Department of Environmental Affairs as part of a programme supported by the National Research Foundation and the South African National Antarctic Programme, will see the students collecting samples and conducting several experiments in the under-explored ocean.

Team leader Mancha Mabaso, alongside Caitlyn Fourie and Sade Magabotha, with the Microbiome Research Group at the university, as well as Francinah Ratsoma, a member of the university's Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, will be joined by a team of scientific researchers from several other South African universities.

“We hope to reveal new insights into micro-organisms in the South Atlantic as the large research programme focuses on marine environments that are geographically strategic for South Africa,” said Mabaso.

Mabaso said this was important as even though there have been several large projects focused on birds, seals and other so-called charismatic macrofauna, few studies had assessed the role played by micro-organisms in the South Atlantic.

“So the team aims to shed light on the exact role played by microbial communities in regulating the function of the oceans ecosystem services.”

Mabaso said the project, titled “Enhanced insights regarding the ecology, evolution and function of marine microbiomes” would aim to provide insights on microbial responses to environmental change and to assess their potential feedback on ecosystem services.

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And although Mabaso, a PhD genetics student, has participated in several marine voyages in the Southern and Pacific Oceans, the new programme would be her first trip to the South Atlantic.

“I am enthusiastic about the role of women – especially black women, in marine microbial ecology and in science. Research has always been notoriously male-centric, so it is empowering to be part of a research group that gives us a platform to grow and make a meaningful contribution to the field.

“The findings of this study will have greater implications for understanding climate change in the global ocean,” she added.

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Fourie, who is doing her Master’s in genetics, said that for her part she was hoping to uncover the extent of gene duplications and their consequences on marine microbial communities as she believed they had not been well studied.

Due to her interest in understanding the evolution of micro-organisms in the oceans, Fourie said her time aboard the ship would entail focusing on microbial gene duplication events, with the hopes that the samples she collects during the cruise would help resolve this knowledge gap.

“Participating in the cruise will give me an opportunity to experience first-hand the type of effort that goes into collecting biological samples because as a computational biologist, I spend most of my time on my computer, processing and extracting useful biological information from sequenced datasets,” said Magabotha.

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Student superviser Professor Thulani Makhalanyane from the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics added: “I am very pleased that women scientists in South Africa are taking their rightful place in leading microbial oceanography. I hope that this generation puts an end to the days of a 100 all-male cruise.”

In March they started loading their equipment and other essentials for their cruise to Marion Island, before going into mandatory quarantine, and are now ready to set sail.

Pretoria News