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March 14, 2019

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Woman scientist’s research helps to feed the world

Women scientists around the world are at the forefront of battling the impact of drought and disease on the crops that people need to survive.

One of them is Jill Farrant, a South African plant molecular physiologist.

Teaching at the University of Cape Town, she is best known for her work on resurrection plants and their role in producing drought-tolerant crops.

Unlike ordinary plant species, resurrection plants can survive extended dry spells and spring back to life with just a small amount of water. They are structured in a way that allows them to slow down their metabolism. Once water is available, shriveled plants come back to life.

As such, these species, of which there are about 130 around the world, mostly in Africa, can be seen growing in drought-prone environment such as sub-Saharan Africa, Farrant told Shanghai Daily.

From 1994, she and her Cape Town colleague Jennifer Thomson have been studying resurrection plants to understand how their genes work. They have also tried to breed more drought-resistant species.

Part of their job is to commit themselves to research in conditions of searing heat to see how the plants respond in that environment, said Farrant, a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

After working in the field, the team bring back their results to the lab, where “we can mimic (conditions in) the field.”

Climate change is posing a threat to African food security, as rainy seasons that “are happening later and shorter” translate into heightened risks for food production on the continent.

This has compelled Farrant and her colleagues to redouble their efforts to try different breeding techniques and activate the “resurrection” genes in food staples such as maize.

Years of research led her to understand that the genes required for drought resistance are present in commercial crops, but largely silenced during development.

Genes are switched on only “selectively,” she said. “In almost 90 percent of the seeds, they can switch them on.”

Similar studies were being carried out around the time she made her discovery, but they tend to focus on “seeing which genes are switched on and off,” without making much effort at understanding the importance of the gene in the first place, or how it makes the plants function, Farrant said.

It’s one thing to insert a gene in maize seeds, dry them out and see how they hold up in the lab, quite another to test if the genetically modified seed can survive extreme environmental conditions in the wild. In Farrant’s words, wind, dry periods, insects and viruses all take their toll on crop growth and these factors aren’t always sufficiently taken into account during pure lab research.

Basically, “you solved one problem, but you haven’t solved the problem out there in the field,” said Farrant, who believes her “systemic” approach set her study apart from the rest of the literature on the subject.

“And it’s really important to understand absolutely everything before you actually say to the consumer, here’s something that we can use,” she said.

Although Farrant has been contributing more than her fair share to food security in Africa, she remained unknown to her own government and the business world. The lack of recognition left her worrying about funding her expensive research endeavors.

The game changer came in 2012, when she won the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science for her contribution to the understanding of plant ecophysiology. She has since achieved global renown, speaking at major forums and seminars.

Money began to trickle in from her government to support her research. “So that award put me in the starting place for great things. I’m very grateful,” Farrant said.

With global visibility came the possibility of widespread applications for her research, most notably her collaboration in 2011 with Giorgio Armani, a luxury brand belonging to the L’Oréal family. Together they used extracts from an African resurrection plant called Myrothamnus flabellifolia, one of the seven species Farrant has been studying.

The plant, which in African folklore is good for medicine, is able to withstand wild fluctuations in temperature from below 0 degrees Celsius to 44 degrees. It is also resistant to UV rays, making it an ideal ingredient for skincare products. “This is the first step toward industrializing my research,” she said.

Commercial application is only a blip in her lifelong commitment to the cross-breeding of more drought-resistant crops. During a recent TED talk, she stated that “my vision is for the subsistence farmers: I’m targeting crops that are of African value.”

Indeed, one of the main crops that have occupied her of late is a plant called Bambara. Cultivated only in Africa and growing underground, it is a grain-like crop that boasts high protein and nutrient levels similar to those in soy beans. “That is very nutritious and I’m trying to make it be more tolerant of the drought,” Farrant said.

According to a brochure from the L’Oréal Group, women are considered to hold the greatest potential for driving improvements. They are increasingly playing a central role as farmers, leaders and scientists in finding ways to sustain and increase food production in extreme climates.

Women scientists like Farrant are a growing presence in what has been referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

China’s first Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou, for example, is a pharmaceutical chemist who achieved global acclaim for her discovery of artemisinin, a chemical compound from plants that prove instrumental in the global fight against malaria.

Farrant takes pride in being a member of a high-profile cohort of women scientists, but says she has still noted signs of subtle discrimination against women in fields where they are less well represented.

Despite the success stories of female biological scientists, the absence of women in “chemical science, engineering science, mathematical science, physics, astronomy” is still very conspicuous, she said. “Very, very few women are coming through in these disciplines.”

Farrant believes the problem is down to social structures that begin “at school level.” Women, in her view, have had enough of being told these disciplines are “too difficult for them.” Barriers certainly can be broken down for them to thrive in these areas, just as they have done in other fields.

Asked if her research on resurrection plants can yield unanticipated ground-breaking discoveries that they might contain genes conducive to the treatment, or even the cure of diseases like cancer, Farrant smiled, her eyes brimming with hope.

She cited the example of marijuana, which contains cannabinoid oils that are proven to be good at battling cancer, epilepsy and other diseases. “Sadly, not a resurrection plant,” she sighed, before her face quickly lit up again. “One day, maybe I’ll find out if they can.”


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