With the ongoing water shortages in the Western Cape and the likelihood of droughts becoming a much more common occurrence as global warming increases, more researchers are trying to find new and innovative ways of recovering resources and re-using water.

Rene Naidoo, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Wine Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University (SU), is one of those researchers.

She is currently working on an innovative research project, which aims to help the South African wine industry develop more integrated biological treatment systems for wastewater using a biorefinery approach to generate valuable bio-products, while simultaneously sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) as a means to create more carbon-neutral environments.

Research must have industry impact

Naidoo says that she has always wanted her research to have a bigger purpose. “As a researcher, I am most interested in understanding how systems work. However, I am also of the opinion that we should actively find ways to bridge the gap between academic and applied research by providing sustainable solutions for industry. Given the large amounts of wastewater generated by the South African wine industry every year, it is imperative that we find ways to conserve and re-use water sources so that the industry can thrive during periods of water scarcity.”

While growing up in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, Naidoo’s parents nurtured in her a love for books, which piqued her interest in both the medical and life sciences.

She completed her undergraduate and postgraduate science studies in molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town. Naidoo also worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics at the University of the Western Cape. All her projects thus far have had a strong algae biotechnology focus with expertise in both macroalgae and microalgae gained.

Biotechnology research to benefit wine industry

In 2014, SU presented an opportunity in which Naidoo could forge ahead with her research on an algae related study. For the last six years, she has been conducting biotechnology research focused on using community ecology approaches to develop a mixed culture biological treatment system for winery wastewater.

Naidoo’s research not only explores sustainable ways to clean up and detoxify wastewater so that it is available for re-use for irrigation or cleaning purposes; she is also finding ways to produce valuable bio-products such as pigments, vitamins and pharmaceuticals in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

Research could stimulate bio-based algae industry

As the effects of global warming and climate change become more apparent, Naidoo says she wants her research to aid in the development of functional wastewater ecosystems using synthetic ecology based approaches, while developing sustainable, cost-effective treatments that will be beneficial to small wineries too.

“My research is very interdisciplinary and brings together expertise in microbiology, synthetic ecology, ecosystem engineering and wastewater bioremediation. I am immensely grateful to Prof Florian Bauer, who presented me with this unique opportunity to combine my algae biotechnology background with his wine ecosystem-centred research, allowing to me to develop a niche area of research.”

Currently, there are no commercial bio-based algae industries in South Africa that focus on the production of bio-products from algae for health and medical applications. Naidoo’s long-term goals are to expand her research to other types of wastewater, such as food and brewery wastewater, and to work towards building a bio-based algae industry in South Africa. – www.sun.ac.za