IN CONVERSATION WITH Greame Bradley - C-Rated Biochemistry Researcher and Biochemistry and Microbiology Professor

Read time: 9 mins

Who is Prof Graeme Bradley?

I was born in Kuruman, a little mining town in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. However, I grew up in Port Elizabeth, matriculating at Pearson High School in 1978.  After matric I first went to the University of Cape Town (UCT) to study Chemical Engineering, but later decided that I wanted to be involved in Medical Research and Sciences. Therefore, I returned to Port Elizabeth to study for a BSc at the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University), majoring in Chemistry and Biochemistry. 

I finally graduated with a PhD in Biochemistry in 1996. My career path has included industrial, clinical and academic experience.  I worked in a veterinary chemical pathology laboratory as well as at a tyre manufacturing plant before deciding to pursue an academic career.

Joining Academia and UFH

My first academic appointment was in 1999, as a lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, University of the Western Cape and in 2003, I was appointed as a Senior Lecturer at Rhodes University.  In 2007 I was offered a permanent post as Professor of Biochemistry and Head of Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at UFH.  Since then I have held many administrative positions, including Director of the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Deputy Dean of Research and internationalisation, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture and member of Council.

My passion is mentoring and development of youth, and since my teens,  I have been involved in youth work.  It is the reason I initially entered into academia, and has been the driving force behind my career.  I also have a passion for computers and technology and have always tried to include technology in my teaching and research. 

My hobbies include wood work, playing piano/organ, reading, computers games and hiking.

Please share some information about your research field, including past and current projects:

Throughout my career I have been exposed to a wide range of research areas,  giving me a broad and in-depth knowledge of the Biochemistry of prokaryotic and eukaryotic systems.  Over the past 20 years I have specialised in the Biochemistry of plant stress and have successfully established a research group at UFH, studying the resistance mechanism of wheat to the various Russian Wheat Aphid Biotypes. 

I have mainly used a proteomics approach in this study, initially using 2D gels but during the last five years, I have moved to Liquid Chromatography/Mass Spectometry methods, in particular, SWATH (Sequential Window Acquisition of All Theoretical Mass Spectra) analysis.  Within this project,  I have established an active collaboration with Prof CJ Botha (Botany, Rhodes University, now retired); Prof Gill Dealtry (NMU); Drs Vicki Tolmay, Astrid Jankielsohn and Tarekegn Terefe (Agricultural Research Council Small Grain Institute) and Dr Stoyan Stoychev (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Biosciences).  Dr Brenda Oppert at the US Department of Agriculture has hosted some of my students as part of our collaborative USDA Seed Grant.

Professors Keith Lindsey and Tony Slabas (Durham University, UK) were instrumental in my initial training in Plant Proteomics and Molecular Biology.  Dr Oppert and Prof Lindsey have participated in staff and student exchange programmes and have also acted as external examiners of my MSc and PhD students within this project.

Additional Research Interest

In addition to my research on plant stress mechanisms, I have an interest in understanding the biochemical mechanisms underlying the use of plants in alternative/ethnomedicine.   Many of the active ingredients in plants used by traditional healers are related to plant stress molecules.

Therefore, during the last ten years, I have established a collaborative research project with Prof Anthony Afolayan (Dept of Botany, UFH) and Prof Maryna van der Venter (Dept of Biochemistry and Microbiology, NMU) to understand the pharmacology of these proteins and small molecules in treating Diabetes, Cancer and HIV.  Prof van der Venter has assisted mainly with the training of my students in tissue culture techniques to understand the anti-diabetic and cytotoxicity mechanisms of action of plant extracts.

Recently (since 2014), I have expanded this project to explore the potential of marine algae as a source of new/novel compounds to treat diabetes, HIV and cancer.  This project was developed in collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity’s (SAIAB) Drs Angus Paterson and Garth van Heerden, as part of the National Research Foundation (NRF) African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme/Phuhlisa programme.

What do you think are your most significant research accomplishments?

Currently, I hold a C2 NRF rating and have published 63 research articles and one book chapter.  I have presented papers/posters at 17 international (8 since 2011) and 26 national (8 since 2011) conferences.  My current H index is 15 (Scopus/ISI Web of Science)/22 (Google Scholar). The i10 index is 38 and I have 1413 citations.

Since 1999, I have also served as external examiner for 56 MSc and 22 PhD students from most  South African Universities and some international universities such as the University of Mauritius. I was also an invited member of the review panel for the Department of Biotechnology, University of Western Cape evaluation board - 2016.  I also served on the University of KwaZulu-Natal Health Sciences School evaluation board - 2007. 

I am a regularly invited reviewer for International and National Journals, including the New Phytologist (IF 6.645); Biochimie (IF 3.022), PLOS One (IF 2.76) and SA journal of Botany (IF 1.659).

Serving on strategic platforms

  • I served on the Advisory Committee for genetically-modified organisms (GMO) Safety (Dept. of Agriculture) as a member of the sub-committee for the assessment of activities involving genetically modified organisms (January 2008 – March 2012).
  •  I have been an active member of the South African Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology since 1989 and served as a Council Member of the Society for 10 years (1994 to 2004), where I served as Secretary and News Editor from 1997 to 2004 and organised and hosted the 25th South African Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Congress, in East London during July 2016.
  •  I have also served on numerous NRF Review Panels, including amongst others,  the National Equipment Programme (NEP) and National Nanotechnology Equipment Programme (NNEP); SARChI Research Chairs; Southern Oceans; African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme and Well-Founded Lab review panels.

Producing Young Researchers

Over the last 20 years I have graduated several young researchers within the areas of Proteomics, Enzymology, Plant Signalling, Bioinformatics and Marine Sciences, including 17 PhD students (4 as co-supervisor); 24 Masters (3 as co-supervisor) and 46 honours students and am currently hosting 2 post-doctoral fellows and supervising/co-supervising 4 PhD, 4 MSc and 1 Honours students.

Research Fundraising and collaboration

I have successfully raised funds nationally, including R 4 089 009 (NRF research grants); R5 100 000 (NRF NEP/RISP grant); R575 000 (NRF ACEP/Phuhlisa grant); R780 000 (UFH GMRDC Seed and RNA Research grants), and internationally from Schering AG (Germany) and the USDA Seed Grant (USA).  Since 1994 I have established various collaborations internationally including the USDA, USA; Durham University, UK and Moscow State University, Russia. National collaborations include the Botany Department, Rhodes University; Biochemistry Department, NMU; CSIR Biosciences and ARC Small Grains Institute in Bethlehem and SAIAB in Grahamstown.

What has been the greatest impact of your work?

The most interesting research results have been in the area of Plant Stress and Resistance Mechanism.  When I started my research into the wheat resistance mechanism in 2007, the ambient atmospheric CO2 levels were around 370 ppm and our predicted elevated CO2 levels for our research projects were 450 ppm. 

These climate-change research results revealed that elevated CO2 levels led to increased Russian Wheat Aphid populations, with a decreased population doubling time.  What was of more concern was that the Russian Wheat Aphid (BioType RWA-SA1 then), was able to overcome the resistance mechanism of the resistant wheat cultivars. 

My collaborator at Rhodes University, Prof Ted Botha, obtained similar results for Barley.  This poses a serious risk to cereal crop farmers in the Free State and the Western Cape.  Our research also showed that the emerging BioTypes (RWA-SA2 and SA3) were able to overcome the resistance mechanism of the RWA-SA1 resistant wheat cultivars.  We have not been able to establish the mechanism of how this is achieved, and this is still on-going research. 

Another interesting result from our research has shown that the wheat resistance mechanism is a multifactorial response and not a single gene-for-gene response that was initially hypothesised.  This has serious complications for plant breeders.

How do you ensure your research is well communicated, digested and acted on?

Early on in my research career I recognised the need for applied research and as a result, I have always established links and collaborations with the relevant industries.  My initial post-doctoral research at Stellenbosch Medical Biochemistry was funded by the Glaxo-Welcome Pharmaceutical Company.   Later,  my research at the Medical Research Council was funded by Shering AG, a German Pharmaceutical Company.  My research results were shared with these companies during annual seminars and research visits. 

With my Plant Stress work I have established a collaboration with the Agricultural Research Council’s  Small Grains Institute and the Commercial Seed Production Company, Sensako, in Bethlehem.  We have held annual research meetings where my students and I have presented our research results to the breeders and scientists at these two institutes.  The students have benefited immensely from these visits because they presented opportunities to interact directly with scientists and breeders at who are at the fore-front of developing new resistant wheat cultivars.  Also,  during these visits

they received hands-on training.  

What advice would you give to Young Researchers out there?

I  have three points of advice for young researchers:

1)      Find your passion.  It is important that you find your passion early on in your career because this helps you weather the ups and downs of a researcher’s life.  There is the old saying that if you get involved with what you are passionate about, you will never have to “work” a day in your life because you will always be enjoying what you are doing.

2)      Be flexible.  In today’s changing world,  one cannot be rigid in one’s ideas and approaches to research.  When I was an undergraduate student, most of my professors had continued with the research that they did as part of their MSc and PhD, and focused on the one area their whole research life.  With the increasing rate of technology developments, and the ability to study complete genomes, proteomes and metabolomes, it is important to stay up-to-date with the current developments and adapt your research to meet new developments.

 3)      Be Patient.  Science, especially Biochemistry, is very unpredictable and often requires dedication, tenacity and patience to obtain reproducible results that are publishable in  top international journals.  Do not go for the numbers but rather go for impact.  Let your research influence the lives of others for the better.  But remember,  this may take time.