Dr Uljana Hesse is a senior lecturer at the Department of Biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC, Bellville, South Africa). She is a specialist in genomics, and has extensive hands-on expertise in crop production, microbiology, biotechnology and bioinformatics, which she acquired in nearly 25 years of agriculture-related research. In particular, she is interested in plants and plant-microbe interactions, and the study of their genomes.

 Dr Hesse comments on the importance of talking about science: ‘Science thrives on communication. Everything under investigation has so many aspects and can be viewed from so many angles. To get a holistic picture, experts from different fields need to work together. Here is where NITheCS plays a big role: it provides a platform for interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, which stimulates collaborations.’

Since 2016, this enthusiastic researcher and academic has been establishing the Medicinal Plants Genomics Programme at UWC. The programme aims to pave the way for large-scale plant transcriptome and genome analyses in the country. Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) was chosen as the pilot plant species, because it is one of the few endemic South African medicinal plant species of economic importance, and enjoyed world-wide as a herbal health tea. It also has an established production system and a defined community that could benefit directly from this research.

Plant genome research is important, because it generates information that holds the potential to transform diverse industries: it can assist in the modernisation of plant protection and plant breeding strategies, and serves to unlock medicinally and industrially relevant biosynthesis pathways for bioprospecting. Yet, few plant genomes have been sequenced and analysed on the African continent.

South Africa is home to the highly diverse Cape Floristic Region which harbours a plethora of unique biosynthetic pathways. To ensure protection and ethical utilisation of this biological resource, local establishment of plant genome research is essential. The Rooibos Genome Programme is one of the first African-lead plant genome initiatives, where all analyses are completed in South Africa (NITheCS colloquium recording here).

Dr Hesse gathered her interdisciplinary expertise while conducting research at top institutions all over the world. She completed her PhD in 2002 at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in her hometown Halle Saale (Germany), and then joined Prof Schardl’s group at the University of Kentucky (Lexington, USA). During these years, she investigated the symbiotic relationships between endophytic fungi and cool season grasses. In 2005, she assisted in securing US$1.2 million to sequence the genome of the fungal symbiont Epichloë festucae, and became co-investigator of the first eukaryotic genome project ever conducted at that university.

Thereafter, she worked in Vancouver (Canada) at the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, collaborating with the renown Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre to investigate the genomic background of the fungal pine tree pathogen Grosmannia clavigera. In 2010, she joined the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) and later the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM) at UWC to analyze genomes of other fungal plant pathogens, the coelacanth and viruses encountered in soil samples from the Namib Desert.

To date, Dr Hesse has published 21 scientific papers (14 leading or last author publications) in peer-reviewed journals (including Nature, PLOS Genetics, PNAS and BMC Genomics), four book chapters and numerous conference proceedings. She has an h-index of 14, and holds a C-rating from the National Research Foundation of South Africa. In October 2022, she was invited to become a member of the Ethics, Legal, and Social Issues Committee (ELSI) of the Earth BioGenome Project (https://www.earthbiogenome.org/).

Asked about her thoughts on being a scientist and what makes it interesting, Dr Hesse answered: ‘My immediate response would be: the people I work with – my teachers, colleagues, the farmers and students. It is inspiring to learn and to open a new view on our surroundings to others. I enjoy problem solving and feel respect when clever research is applied in practice in an appropriate, ethically responsible way. I therefore hope to achieve the same. But ultimately, I enjoy research because it provides me with an incorruptible feeling of freedom to discover hidden treasures – glimpses into the true makeup of this world.’