Agora. For women in science community. - Jill Farrant, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, is the world’s leading expert on resurrection plants, which ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated, seemingly dead state when they are rehydrated. Professor Farrant is investigating the ability of many species of these plants to survive without water for long periods of time from a number of angles, from the molecular, biochemical and ultrastructural to the whole-plant ecophysiological, using a unique comparative approach and working with many different species of resurrection plants and a variety of tissues. The ultimate goal is to find applications that will lead to the development of drought-tolerant crops to nourish populations in arid, drought-prone climates, notably in Africa, and her research may have medicinal applications as well.
As spring turned to summer in South Africa in late 2011, Professor Farrant was enthusiastically watching the reaction of a plant she had recently discovered that is the only one known to transition into a drought-tolerant state when the dry season arrives. ‘It’s starting to switch on the right genes,’ she said, adding, ‘To look at the signals involved is awesome.’
She speaks about the resurrection plants she studies – which have the fascinating ability to revive from a dried-out, seemingly dead state to full, green life when given water – almost with affection. ‘They have a special place in my life,’ she admitted. In fact, these plants carry a certain symbolism for Jill Farrant. Like the plants that are the subject of her research, she has undergone something of a resurrection. Three years ago, she suffered a head injury that brought her within an hour of death. Coming back to life after that traumatic experience has been a mighty struggle – not least because she has since lost her senses of taste and smell – but one that has enabled her to find a new balance between her work and private life. Her goal now is ‘to be able to live on a day-to-day basis with happiness and serenity and passion for whatever I do, be it my work or people or my hobbies.’
AN EARLY PASSION FOR NATURE
Professor Farrant’s desire to be a scientist and her interest in resurrection plants both stem from her childhood on the family farm. ‘I spent a lot of time on the farm on my own,’ she says, ‘and my passion for nature started there.’ When she was nine years old and an avid birdwatcher, she was sitting one day in a favourite place called the Flat Rocks and noticed that what had seemed to be a dead plant on a rock had come alive again after it rained. She still has the diary in which she noted the experience: ‘The ded [sic] plant on the rocks was alive but Dad wouldn’t believe me.’ A memorable trip to the Solomon Islands when she was 18 convinced her that she should become a marine biologist. Later, she was inspired by her professors and role models Patricia Berjak and Norman Pammenter, a husband and wife team at the University of KwaZulu Natal, ‘my guiding lights, who have dedicated their whole life to science’ and with whom she still sometimes collaborates. ‘Science was always a passion,’ adds Jill Farrant, ‘and it just evolved.’
Later, the memory of the dead plant’s revival when she was a child inspired her to focus her research on resurrection plants when she returned to South Africa from the United States, where she had been studying for a year. Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison, and she had been offered a job at the University of Cape Town. She wanted to be part of the new South Africa. ‘I knew I could make a difference,’ she said. ‘It’s really important to educate people so they can make informed decisions. That’s why I came back.’
FIVE YEARS TO DROUGHT-RESISTANT MAIZE?
While the holy grail of her research is to make possible the development of drought-resistant crops, some of these plants may also have ‘very promising medicinal uses’ that she is not yet prepared to talk about. How long might it be before these dreams become reality? ‘How long is a piece of string?’ she asks. ‘It’s not just about finding a whole set of genes that seemingly are required for drought tolerance. You’ve got to look at the whole plant physiology in order to understand what protective processes are involved and how these, in turn, are regulated at the molecular level.’ That said, she thinks that pre-commercial production of drought-tolerant maize varieties might be possible in five years. ‘But you never know,’ she cautioned.
WACKY IDEAS AND LATERAL THINKING
Professor Farrant, who describes herself as a spiritual person who delights in understanding God’s creation and who often communicates with Him in nature, is so passionate about every aspect of her work, from basic research to teaching, that she has trouble choosing one that interests her more than others. ‘I am fascinated with the applications,’ she said. ‘I would like to understand what plants are doing, how they do it, what their signalling molecules are, how they talk to each other. I would, of course, love to find a solution to world problems like food security. That would be a big thing for me. But you get there slowly, step by step.’ One of her gifts, she believes, is to have ‘wacky ideas’ that lead her into new areas. This kind of lateral thinking is something that she appreciates about working and brainstorming with other women. She also channels her creative streak into writing poetry and songs, and recently bought herself a piano and plans to teach herself how to play.