Prof Wingfield

Prof. Mike Wingfield was responsible for establishing the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria in 1997.  He stepped down from the position of FABI Director after 20 years in 2007 and serves as an advisor to the Executive of the University of Pretoria.  He served a five-year term (2014-2019) as President of the International Union of Forestry Research Organisations (IUFRO), based in Austria, representing more than 15 000 forest scientists globally. He currently holds the position of Immediate Past President of the Union (2019-2024).  

Mike Wingfield has a broad interest in biology and ecology, with his research increasingly over the years, lying at the intersections of disciplines such as mycology, plant pathology and entomology.  The primary focus of his research has been on the health of forest trees, especially where trees have been affected by damage due to fungi and insects. In this regard, he has a specific interest in the microbes (particularly fungi) that are associated with insects and that (broadly) are found on trees and wood. He has been involved in research projects in many parts of the world, particularly those relating to the health of trees and determining the pathways of movement of the causal agents of tree disease. 

Mike has a strong belief that a comprehensive understanding of the biology and genetics of pathogens and pests is needed, in order to reduce their negative impacts.  This has provided the foundation for an intensive basic research programme using the most modern biotechnological tools together with an extensive global network of collaborators. He has a deep commitment to science education and research excellence. This is well  illustrated by his extensive list of publication in this field in more than 1000 ISI Journal papers and the fact that has advised or co-advised more than 100 Ph.D. students. He has received many awards and tokens of recognition, including the Kwame Nkuruma Award from the African Union, honorary doctorates from North Carolina State University (USA), the University of British Columbia (Canada), the University of the Free State (South Africa) as well as the China Friendship Award. 

The aim of his project will be to determine the ecological origin of two species of fungi that are well-known pathogens of humans, and both known to occur in South Africa.  In doing so, he hopes to promote an important yet neglected aspect of medical mycology. A related aim will be to bridge the divide between mycologists interested in the ecology of medically relevant fungi in South Africa and those that consider these organisms from a clinical perspective.

The two fungi providing the basis of this project are Sporothrix schenckii, the cause of a cutaneous disease known as sporotrichosis and Cryptococcus neoformans that causes the pulmonary disease, cryptococcosis.  Sporothrix schenckii has been known in South Africa since its first discovery associated with infections linked to timber used in gold mines.  But its actual association with the wood has never been equivocally determined.  The question regarding Cryptococcus is more fundamental and relates to the yeast originally described as Sterigmatomyces wingfieldii.  This yeast has been transferred to the genus Cryptococcus and is a close relative to the important human pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans.  The origin of Cryptococcus wingfieldii is South African but the natural range and ecology of this species remains unknown, a question he hopes to resolve in this study.