South African gene study hailed in boost to R&D funds

Amblyomma ticks transmit the bacterium that causes heartwater disease to livestock Copyright: African Centre for Gene Technologies

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South Africa’s science minister has used a local research coup — cracking the genetic code of a major livestock parasite — to back his call for heavier national investment in research and development (R&D).

Announcing a target of one per cent of the gross domestic product to be spent on R&D by 2008, Mosibudi Mangena said in his annual budget vote speech in parliament that the research was “hard evidence that Africa’s problems can be solved with African resources”.

The project, which is the first entire sequencing of any organism done in Africa, focused on the tick-borne bacterium Ehrlichia ruminantium, source of the generally fatal ‘heartwater disease’. The disease, which causes neurological and respiratory problems has decimated livestock throughout sub-Saharan Africa for centuries.

“In all likelihood, within five years, this breakthrough will result in an effective vaccine, which will bring an end to this dreadful scourge,” said Mangena.

Mangena noted that the current level of R&D investment in South Africa — 0.76 per cent — is barely a third of the average in member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “This is insufficient to assure our national competitiveness,” he said.

He revealed that the government has recommitted to the 2002 National R&D Strategy, which recommends that one per cent of gross domestic product be invested by both public and private sectors by 2008.

“This implies an additional two billion rand [US$325 million] across both sectors. We believe that it is not too much to ask,” he said.

Basil Allsopp of the University of Pretoria, who led the team that decoded the Ehrlichia ruminantium genes, says more money is required to develop the urgently needed vaccine against heartwater disease.

 “Not only is the disease a significant economic burden in Africa, where it infects both domestic and wild animals, but the bacteria and its tick vector were exported to the Caribbean from Africa and it now threatens to invade the Americas,” he says.

“This would be a disaster for livestock owners in North, Central and South America, where all domestic stock would be completely susceptible.”

The research was a joint effort between the University of Pretoria and the nearby Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, which is run by South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council.

Allsopp warned, however, that the funding from South Africa’s National Research Foundation only covers the screening of about 40 of the bacterium’s 880 genes as potential candidates for vaccines.

“Having gone this far is a bit like having an encyclopedia on your bookshelf, but never opening it,” he said.

Nonetheless, parliamentarians appear to be paying attention to the successes of local scientists.

The budget of the South African Department of Science and Technology has doubled in four years, for example. It appears to be well on track to achieving Mangena’s target, which was set by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Mangena’s deputy Derek Hanekom delivered an accompanying speech to parliament that reaffirmed the government’s support for the pebble bed modular reactor, a controversial nuclear technology, as well as hydrogen fuel cell research.

These investments are part of South Africa’s efforts to increase energy sources without contravening the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

“One of our challenges at household level is to find alternative fuels to paraffin,” Hanekom said. He noted how paraffin fires destroy entire settlements every year, and emit fumes that are a major health problem, particularly for women and children.

As a result, the government has invested more than 3.25 million rand (US$528,0000) to develop and market clean-burning stoves and heaters that use an ethanol gel derived from biomass rather than non-renewable fossil fuels.

“Using a gel means that if a stove is knocked over, the flames will not spread but stay in one place, making it much easier to extinguish the fire,” explained Hanekom. “The stoves do not work under pressure, eliminating another potential danger of flash fires from leaking paraffin stoves.”

The heartwater disease gene research was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on 6 January and in print on 18 January 2005.