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Published: 10 Sep 2012
|SA: Derek Hanekom: Address by Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, at the joint meeting of the South African Genetics Society and the Southern African Society for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Stellenbosch (10/09/2012)|
Conference chairs, Prof Fourie Joubert and Dr Rouvay Roodt-Wilding
President of the South African Genetics Society, Prof Zander Myburg
Representative of the Southern African Society for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Dr Ozlem Bishop
Vice-Rector of Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University, Prof Eugene Cloete
Ladies and gentlemen
Thank you, Prof Myburg and Prof Bishop, for your warm words of welcome. It is truly an honour to deliver the opening address at this occasion, where some of the leading minds in scientific research are gathered to help find solutions to some of the global health challenges.
According to my sources, which are normally quite reliable, Dr Roodt-Wilding established the Molecular Aquatic Research Group soon after she started her work at the Department of Genetics in 2004, and her research focuses on molecular population genetics and molecular breeding of various species of fish, livestock and plants.
The work that she and her colleagues and some of her PhD students are doing has led to various projects on not only commercially important fish species, including abalone and yellowtail, but also important livestock species, like Merino sheep. One of the presentations this afternoon will in fact be on the global genetic structure of the yellowtail.
Dr Roodt-Wilding’s research group is clearly at the cutting edge of innovative technology and was, or so I am told, one of the first research groups in the world to utilise next-generation sequencing technologies in an abalone species. So this conference is clearly in impressive hands, and without wanting to put unreasonable pressure on you, our expectations are high!
Ladies and gentlemen, this joint meeting will, over the next few days, explore the intriguing topic of “The data-mining revolution”. This word “revolution”, still gets me excited. Not just because it reminds me of our country’s own revolutionary struggle for democracy, but because the daunting challenges confronting humanity today need nothing less than revolutionary thinking and revolutionary zeal. Your deliberations need to be engaging, robust and indeed revolutionary because scientific progress and advancement depend on the vigorous and imaginative exchange of ideas.
Research is important, yes, but will remain merely an intellectual pursuit and an academic exercise if it is not shared with fellow specialists in the particular field, and debated widely and transparently. This conference is an ideal opportunity to do just that.
Although much of the research that will be discussed here is still in relatively early, theoretical stages, it will have to start moving towards tangible outputs, because the proverbial clock is ticking. Our researchers and scientists need to align their research with the practical needs of the country needs that are growing by the day. Our researchers need to both harness and apply science and technology solutions drawn from the global pool of knowledge, innovation and expertise, and make our own meaningful contribution to this pool. We certainly don’t want to be passive recipients of knowledge generated elsewhere.
We have the talent; we have the commitment, and there is no reason why Africa should not become the preferred science destination in a number of disciplines. To achieve this we need to build on and showcase our positive attitude towards the importance of science and technology in developing solutions to what may appear to be intractable challenges confronting human society. We need to believe in ourselves, think big, and work together to get the greatest value out our efforts.
The pace of advances in research, technology and science has been so rapid over the past few years that it is no exaggeration to say that we are experiencing revolutionary change. With regard to this particular conference, the headlong advancement of technology, especially breakthroughs in next-generation sequencing, has resulted in a veritable deluge of biological data in genetics and bio-informatics research. The analysis of these large quantities of data naturally poses a challenge, but has incredible potential to improve our understanding of biological systems.
The fresh insights that can be gleaned from this data can be applied to revolutionise medicine, agriculture, conservation and sustainable development and biotechnology as a whole. This does of course have real significance for our country, given our rich biodiversity, our on-going efforts at moving towards a greener economy and the imponderables and risks associated with the apocalyptic spectre of climate change.
Ladies and gentlemen, bioinformatics is of course a fairly recent development, born out of the need to deal with the vast data sets now being generated. While it may be unlikely that a researcher of pure bioinformatics will win a Nobel Prize, it is becoming even more unlikely that a biologist will be awarded such a prize without substantial bioinformatics support. The two disciplines are clearly interdependent and have a combined relevance - their marriage at this event certainly makes sense.
While genetics has enjoyed some form of government support probably since the creation of the CSIR in the mid 1940s. With the subsequent establishment of science councils such as the Medical Research Council and Mintek, bioinformatics has had a specific support programme since 2003, when the National Bioinformatics Network was founded. Today, several universities have bioinformatics units, and we have the African Centre for Gene Technologies responsible for training, coordination and support in areas such as Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.
The Department of Science and Technology’s support for Bioinformatics has more recently been channelled in three directions a National Research Foundation supported human capital development programme; a pilot project run by the Centre for High Performance Computing to make its computing power available for bioinformatics purposes; and thirdly, limited bioinformatics capacity created by our Technology Innovation Agency.
We are also rapidly approaching the finalisation of our new Bioeconomy Strategy, which will strengthen Government’s support for science-based innovation. A number of key issues have been identified in the development of this draft strategy, including the extent of support offered to strategic basic research, the need for the roles of various government agencies and institutions to evolve along with developments in science and technology, and the enhanced coordination of the emerging National System of Innovation. Over the past few decades, there has been a move away from support of pure research, within strictly defined disciplines, towards a more trans-disciplinary approach, locate within a coherent National System of Innovation.
Within the time constraints of this address, I would like to tell you about just two of the human sequencing projects that Government supports with the aim of creating a platform that facilitates human health innovation. The first one is the Human Heredity and Health in Africa initiative, more commonly known as H3Africa. Studies have shown that African populations have the greatest amount of genetic variability.
H3 Africa focuses on both genes and environmental data in the expectation that it may lead to an understanding of how the interaction between the two influences health and disease. This project aims to facilitate a contemporary research approach to the study of genomics and environmental determinants of common diseases, and to organise the development of large-scale population studies by African researchers on African populations.
South Africa has every intention to participate fully in this initiative, including via the second project I’d like to tell you more about, as it is linked to the H3Africa venture. It is known as the Southern African Human Genome Project, an initiative that has received funding from the DST.
The objective of this venture is the establishment of a national genomic database and biorepository as a means of both safeguarding and exploiting the Southern African region’s remarkable human genomic diversity, and making a telling contribution to the understanding of DNA variation among southern Africans and how this impacts on the health of our country’s citizens.
The human genome project gathers information on the pathogenesis of human disease in order to use this for medical benefit, and develops the required bioinformatic skills and capacity needed to analyse the vast amount of data that will be generated.
To complement the human genome project, the University of the Witwatersrand has been awarded a research chair in the field of Bioinformatics of African Populations. The initiative is funded by the DST and by the National Research Foundation to develop and promote research in this country.
It remains critically important that genetic and/or genomic information does not just remain in the academic domain. It must be used to generate knowledge and products that can ultimately benefit our country’s citizens. This end-goal must be in the forefront of your thoughts as you engage in your respective discussions and debates over the next three days. You need to be determined, like a super-tanker refusing to be pushed off course.
To our younger researchers and scientists here today, you are a rare breed, particularly in the disciplines of Genetics and Bioinformatics, and many of you are destined to discover great things in your studies and research. I am quite sure that your participation in this conference will be an enriching experience that will stand you in good stead as you approach the end of your studies and your entry into the job market.
To conclude, ladies and gentlemen, this joint conference of the Genetics and Bio-informatics societies is an exciting one for both, as it presents real, practical opportunities for experimental and computational biologists to interact and to collaborate. Hopefully this will lead the way towards more efficient and productive research in both the fields of genetics and bio-informatics.
Data generated from these efforts will help to inform strategies that can be adopted to address the health inequities in our country. We need to build a competitive edge in bio-innovation. We already have at our doorstep many of the necessary resources such as human genome diversity and floral diversity, but we must be more pro-active in our approach.
Finally, I wish you all a productive and informative conference.