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23 May 2019
UWC-University of Missouri System collaboration explores technology to assist with crop resilience

(Published - 23 May 2019)

The University of the Western Cape and the University of Missouri System are conducting groundbreaking research to explore technology that could assist with crop resilience in South Africa. This could also help South Africa address water scarcity and food insecurity challenges.

The universities celebrate a 33-year relationship, and President Mun Choi from the University of Missouri System (UM) is visiting UWC this week.

On Wednesday, students from UM demonstrated how Sunbear 1 - a replica of a robot they created in the United States - could assist with the challenges of producing crops in times of continual drought for South Africa.

PhD candidate in molecular genetics from UM, Sam McInturf, said the plants they study are very similar to those consumed in South Africa.

“With the knowledge we acquire we can identify genetic information that translates to rice. For instance, we can greatly speed up rice varieties that can be resistant to drought, salt and heat,” said McInturf.

“All of these factors are genetically driven and we can fast track which of the genes are important for these traits.”

The UWC and UM computer sciences departments successfully combined their efforts and created the replica in record time. “The robot photographs plants as they grow, detects and measures a plant's root growth, and the information extracted from readings can be practically applied and used in the seed supply industry,” McInturf explained.

Professor Tyrone Pretorius, UWC Vice-Chancellor and Rector, received his first international scholarship at the University of Missouri-Columbia campus as part of the University of Missouri-South Africa Africa Educational programme.

He is proud of the partnership with the University of Missouri System - a combination of universities from the Missouri region.


“The partnership was born out of the divestment movement encouraged by anti-apartheid student protests at various USA campuses in 1986.

“The University of Missouri decided to divest from apartheid South Africa, and took the bold move to invest in a partnership with a historically black university, the University of the Western Cape,” said Prof Pretorius.

President Choi said this partnership was initially started to support UWC, but they had no idea just how beneficial the relationship would become.

“More than 800 faculty members and students crossed the Atlantic to pursue opportunities for student learning and innovative research that ultimately serve humanity.

“On my part there will be a very important effort to provide more resources to help make this opportunity available for faculties and students of both institutions to continue this important collaboration. It has been a terrific partnership,” said President Choi.

UWC’s Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Prof Mike Davies-Coleman, said his faculty benefitted hugely from the exchange over the past 33 years. He described Sunbear 1 as a “wonderful sign of maturity and partnership” between the institutions.