FORESTRY SOUTH AFRICA EDITORIAL
South African forestry research claims fame in the international Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Award
The International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA) announced three global winners of the 2018-2019 Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Award. Among them was Martin Wierzbicki, an MSc graduate from University of Pretoria (UP), who carried out research on genome-based biotechnology for designer wood that would facilitate better industrial processing.
Elina Pääkkönen (Finland) and Chinmay Satam (USA) were also lauded for their novel wood-based research projects. The three winners made their official presentations in Vancouver, Canada on 8 May to industry executives at the ICFPA-hosted international CEO Roundtable, a biennial gathering of forestry and forest product companies.
Wierzbicki carried out his research under the supervision of Professor Zander Myburg, director of the Forest Molecular Genetics (FMG) Programme at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI).
“The FMG programme is one of the industry’s flagship research programmes and significantly funded by the forestry industry and we are delighted that Martin’s work has been recognised internationally,” says Dr Ronald Heath, Director: Research and Protection at Forestry South Africa.
Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA), was in Vancouver. “We are immensely proud of Martin and his accomplishments.” PAMSA co-ordinated the local South African round and, along with the ICFPA, sponsored Martin to attend the meetings in Vancouver.
Wierzbicki also worked in in collaboration with Professor Shawn Mansfield of the Department of Wood Science at University of British Columbia, Canada. During his undergraduate studies at UP, Wierzbicki was selected to be a mentorship student in the FMG Programme in FABI and later went on to also be a mentor himself for undergraduate students.
“The jury unanimously praised the quality of the submissions but had the difficult duty of selecting the winners from 13 strong entries from around the world,” said Bernard de Galembert, Innovation and Bioeconomy Director at the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), who led the competition process.
Another South African entry among these 13 global entries was that of Madeleine Pretorius, a M.Eng graduate from the North West University. The focus of her study was the synthesis of polycarbonates from waste lignin for application in the preparation of non-isocyanide polyurethane (NIPU).
Wierzbicki’s work has focused on how the genetic makeup of trees can be changed to improve how wood reacts to industrial processing in order to maximise the extraction of biopolymers such as cellulose, lignin and xylan (a complex sugar found in plant cells). Separating wood components into distinct processing streams as cleanly as possible allows each component to be used to make high value products, but is hampered by the strong associations between wood biopolymers that make industrial breakdown difficult and costly.
“I have combined genetics, genomics, big data and wood chemistry analyses to build a gene network model,” he explained. “My model treats the tree as a ‘living biorefinery’, where we have control of how the wood is made.”
He hopes that his work will help companies to improve breeding techniques to reduce the loss of valuable components during wood processing and to introduce novel properties for advanced biomaterial production in trees.