22 May, 2019
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.