Grapevine tragedy turns into a new start

When Portia Griffiths attained her Bachelors degree in Natural Sciences (Biochemistry and Biotechnology) in 1999, her first assignment was at the Department for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a Scientific Technician.  Her role included detecting and diagnosing phytoplasma at the Stellenbosch Plant Quarantine Station in South Africa. There, she was charged with the regulation of the import and export of plant pathogens.

During the course of her work, there was an outbreak of grapevine disease in 2008, and, as usual, she and her colleagues were tasked to detect the cause of the outbreak and devise a way to stop it. Unfortunately, things did not go the way they expected. “We did not have enough knowledge and expertise in the Department to perform the task,” she says. The Department, therefore, had to outsource this function. A committee was formed comprising universities, famers, the South African Government and wine companies. The committee settled for a university professor to design the primas to deal with the disease.  Although the disease was controlled, the government paid thousands of rands.

After this incident, Portia realised that she needed more knowledge to perform her work better and that is when the idea of furthering her education was mooted. In 2009, she applied for a Scholarship funded by the Australian Government to study for a Masters in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics at La Trobe University in Australia. But her desire was to study and work under someone who was experienced in phytoplasma so as to gain practical experience as well. After a long search, she came across someone who was willing to work with her on her project.

At the end of her studies in 2011, she had learnt the most effective way of detecting phytoplasma and verifying them. “I also learnt of processes and techniques such as phylogenetics software, analysis of phylogenetics data and real-time polymerase that are reliable and make my work very easy,” says Portia.

Due to her knowledge and networks she acquired in Australia, Portia is now the first person to be consulted by her Ministry whenever there is any disease outbreak because of her deep knowledge on plant pathogens. She is well versed in the verification process when a positive sample is detected, and in the use of multiple DNA primers. Another area in which she is well versed is the identification of phytoplasma gene analysis. “I know how to detect and tackle any disease outbreak in plants and the government does not have to pay third parties to do the job,” she says.

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