Written by Shaun Stice
This past September I was able to use a travel grant from the UGA graduate school to fund my travel to the University of Pretoria in Pretoria South, Africa.
My research focuses on Pantoea ananatis, the primary causal agent of center-rot disease of onion. Our past research utilized comparative genomics to identify virulence genes in this bacterium. We now know there are two gene loci within the bacterium that are important for strain virulence, HiVir, and alt. The HiVir locus is chromosomally localized and was discovered by the Dr. Steven Beer’s lab at Cornell University, it is thought to produce an as-of-yet unidentified small-molecule toxin that kills onion cells. The alt locus is plasmid localized, discovered in our lab, and confers resistance to thiosulfinates produced by the dying onion cells. Both loci are hypothesized to work in tandem to allow pathogenic P. ananatis strains to kill and colonize onion bulbs.
Dr. Teresa Coutinho is one of the world’s foremost experts on the Pantoea genus and is a member of my committee. Her lab has a large diverse collection of Pantoea strains from all over the world. I developed diagnostic primers for the Hivir and alt virulence loci and sought to screen strains in her collection during my trip. The trip to South Africa was very long. I was on a non-stop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. The flight is Delta’s longest operating flight at around 14-15.5 hours depending on the direction.
While in Pretoria I stayed at Future Africa, an apartment-style living area built for visiting scientists and researchers. The facility was quite modern and beautiful. A shuttle would take me to the main campus where I would then walk to the Center for Microbial Ecology & Genetics where Dr. Coutinho’s lab is currently based. The facilities at Pretoria were breathtaking with beautiful trees, multiple cafés, and many convenient eateries. My favorite on-campus restaurant is called Steers, its essentially a burger-king type fast food joint. They have a special every Wednesday called ‘Wacky Wednesday’ where its buy-one get-one free on all burgers, basically 2.5 USD for two decent burgers!
Dr. Coutinho’s students were most welcoming and let me see their research. While screening Dr. Coutinho’s collection of strains I worked closely with her Senior student Gina Shin. Gina and her husband Li were wonderful: driving me to get groceries, taking me out to restaurants, showing me the local attractions and helping me feel at home in South Africa. I hope to return the favor when they come to Georgia.
During my last week Dr. Coutinho arranged for me to travel with her previous student Gabby, now a Post-Doc, and her friend Shawn to see Kruger national park. It was an incredible experience, I literally felt like I was in a nature documentary. At one point we saw a pack of female lions stalking a giraffe. During my final week I had the opportunity to present my research at the FABI (Forestry and Agriculture Biotechnology Institute) group meeting. I was able to meet scientists such as Dr. Stephanus Venter and a UGA alum Dr. Seonju Marincowitz. Dr. Marincowitz curates the FABI fungal culture collection.
My experience at the University of Pretoria in South Africa was incredible. I was able to network, make great friends, collect publishable data, and get a feel for the beautiful country of South Africa. If you ever get the chance to visit FABI, the University of Pretoria, or South Africa in general definitely do it!