Dr Brenda Wingfield is a Professor in Genetics at the University of Pretoria, holds the SARChI Chair in Fungal Genomics and is internationally recognised as a world leader in her field. She serves in leadership roles in both national and international structures as Vice-President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, convener of the NRF’s rating specialist committee for Microbiology and Plant Pathology, Secretary General of the International Society of Plant Pathology, past Chair of the National Science and Technology Forum and as a project leader in the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology.
Brenda Wingfield was born in Zambia, completed her schooling in Zimbabwe and calls South Africa her home. She obtained her B.Sc and B.Sc Hons degrees at the Universities of Natal and Cape Town, a Master’s in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and the Ph.D at the University of Stellenbosch. Wingfield and her husband Mike moved to the University of Pretoria in the late 1990s and, along with other academics, established the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI).
Wingfield’s contributions to science have been recognised by others over the years: the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (2007), the DST ‘Distinguished Women in Science Award’ (2008), the African Union ‘Women in Science (Southern Region) Award’ (2009) and the NSTF BHP Billiton ‘Outstanding Contribution to SET Research Capacity Building’ (2014). She received an A-rating from the NRF in 2013 and was awarded the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology’s Christiaan Hendrik Persoon Medal for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Plant Pathology’ in 2015.
Professor Wingfield’s research over the past twenty years has focused on the global movement and evolution of fungal pathogens, particularly those which cause tree disease. She was instrumental in developing the first DNA based phylogenes for a number of important tree pathogens, and molecular tools to study the population diversity, origins and movements of many tree pathogens around the world. She also sequenced the first fungal genome in Africa.
Her project aims at achieving a better understanding and characterisation of the Mating type locus in a group of fungi known as Ascomycetes (the vast majority of tree pathogens are fungal and belong to this group) as this is important for the management of plant and tree pathogens. Genes are central to sexual reproduction in fungi as elsewhere, and recombination between mating genomes is one of the driving forces in their evolution and genetic change. There is an ‘arms race’ between pathogens and their hosts and the capacity of a pathogen to adapt and change in response to the defences of its host defines the ability of the pathogen to survive. The international community of mycologists has embarked on ‘the 1000 fungal genomes project’ and Professor Wingfield with her collaborators and graduate and post-doctoral students at the University of Pretoria are enthusiastic members of this initiative. The Fellowship Award will make this project possible on an ambitious scale.