Themed Green is Gold and hosted by UKZN’s School of Life Sciences, the South African Association of Botanists (SAAB) recently held its 39th annual conference at Drakensville in the Drakensberg.

The conference celebrated the economic and scientific value of plant diversity in South Africa and attracted about 240 botanical boffins from around the world.

UKZN’s Professor Steve Johnson chaired the local organising committee while core sponsors were UKZN, InqabaBiotec and Bruker.

Johnson, an NRF A-rated scientist who currently holds the South African Research Chair in Evolutionary Biology, spoke in his opening address about the future of botany as a discipline.

Commenting on the trend in academic institutions towards mega-schools, Johnson said: ‘Botany will not have the institutional identity it had in the past. However, this does not mean Botany as a discipline is threatened. A lot of important research on plants is being undertaken at UKZN and elsewhere in South Africa.’ 

Johnson stressed there was a greater role than ever for associations such as the SAAB to keep specific disciplines alive and engaged. 

Sub-themes of the conference included savanna ecology; ethonobotany; plant diversity and taxonomy; phytochemistry and biological uses; conservation biology; pollination biology; ecosystem services; global change and plant invasions, and chemical ecology.

Discussing the themes, Johnson said:  ‘Fields such as plant pollination biology and ethnopharmacology are currently dominant areas of research in South Africa because they are based on biodiversity.’ 

He explained biodiversity not only gave insights into evolution and ecology, but it also had practical benefits such as being a source of new medicinal compounds. Biodiversity was thus a geographic advantage South Africa had in terms of its research.

Johnson pointed out that the same geographical advantage applied to other fields such as geology and astronomy.

The conference was divided into a number of plenary and parallel sessions, with invited plenary speakers - both local and international - selected to represent cutting-edge research.

Professor Rod Peakall, an evolutionary biologist from the Australian National University, spoke on the chemistry, ecology and evolution of pollination by sexual deception; Professor Ilse Kranner, a plant physiologist from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, discussed the mechanisms of seed ageing; Biochemist Professor Dirk Bellstedt of Stellenbosch University considered molecular tools for phylogenetics at different scales;  Professor Jill Farrant of the University of Cape Town delivered an address on the use of resurrection plants as models to understand how plants tolerate extreme water loss; and Dr Sally Archibald, a CSIR senior research scientist and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, covered the fire-vegetation-climate system and how ecology can contribute to earth system science.

One innovation at the gathering was a Botanical Quiz, arranged by Dr Christina Potgieter, senior technician at UKZN’s Bews Herbarium.

Conference proceedings concluded with a gala dinner, at which UKZN scooped two of the four student awards on offer. 

·      MSc student Mr Florent Martos won the prize for best poster presentation with his work titled: The Chemical Basis of Specialisation in a Pollination System: Deception of Drosophilid Flies through Olfactory Mimicry of Fermenting Fruits.

·     Ms Jadine Sivechurran won the overall award for the best MSc student presentation for her talk titled: Effects of Visual and Olfactory Cues on Carrion Fly Attraction, with Special Reference to the Function of Floral Traits in Stapeliads.

The conference was followed by a special research symposium, sponsored by Annals of Botany, titled: Drivers of Plant Speciation: Understanding the Role of Pollinators in Shaping Geographical Variation in Floral Traits.

Focusing on pollinators as drivers of plant speciation, the symposium explored the evolution of flowers using specific case studies and broader integrated perspectives.  This symposium was co-organised by Johnson and Dr Timo van der Niet of the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre at Leiden University in The Netherlands.

Johnson said the theme of the conference - Green is Gold - was inspired both by the Olympic Games and, closer to home, Pelham Senior Primary.  He thanked his willing team of colleagues and student and postdoctoral helpers for putting in the long hours it took to make both the conference and the symposium such a resounding success. 

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