Our story: Creating START’s legacy  

“START has been an exciting journey, which has reaped fantastic results in a remarkably short space of time. African researchers are keen to apply synchrotron techniques to their research problems and find African and joint solutions to global challenges”

Professor Chris Nicklin, Science Group Leader at Diamond Light Source, UK

On the 30th of April 2018, a collaboration was signed to foster the development of Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START).  Funded by a £3.7M Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) grant provided over three years (2018 to 2021) by the UK Research and Innovation’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), GCRF START gave researchers in Africa access to the UK’s national synchrotron Diamond Light Source and facilitated education programmes, laboratory enhancement and technology transfer.  

Andani Mulelu preparing a column for preparative chromatography at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

The original GCRF START project focused on two lines of scientific investigation: developing and characterising new energy materials for new energy-related devices and improvements in energy efficiency; and Structural Biology to better understand diseases, develop drug targets, and foster ‘green’ biotechnology solutions.  

GCRF START created an extraordinary legacy, transforming the Structural Biology landscape in South Africa.  Researchers from multiple institutions in South Africa successfully determined protein structures. The insights gained were published in appropriate journals and gave the authors entry into the discipline of Structural Biology. 

In South Africa, nine START Co-Investigators built infrastructure at seven institutions, to include six fully capable protein crystallography laboratories to access synchrotrons world-wide. Four laboratories own X-ray diffractometers and, uniquely in Africa, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis now houses a cryo-electron microscope equipped with a direct electron detector.  

Research focused on communicable and non-communicable diseases, leading to further understanding of potential treatments for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), snakebite envenomation, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, bilharzia, human papilloma virus, cardiovascular disease, human metabolic disorders, African Horse Sickness virus, and industrial enzymes for the ‘green’ manufacture of medicines and commodity chemicals. 

Groups at eight institutions regularly collected X-ray diffraction data at Diamond and cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) data at the UK’s national Electron Bio-Imaging Centre (eBIC).  Access to fragment-based drug discovery resources on the XChem beamline at Diamond enhanced research prospects for early career scientists.  

Feedback and Testimonials

One of the greatest benefits of START has been the fruitful collaborations and relationships I have built with South African structural biologists who have significantly aided my career progression. I want to be an inspiration for young African girls and women to know that it is possible to fulfill their dreams.

— Dr Thandeka Moyo, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases, affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

I find it very stimulating to be a part of such a diverse group of scientists who are all working together towards achieving common goals to uplift communities and find solutions to global challenges.

— Dr Lizelle Lubbe, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Having access through START to experimental synchrotron techniques like X-Ray crystallography at Diamond Light Source to obtain crystals, and to solve structures at high resolutions has been revolutionary for us.”

— Dr Ramesh Pandian, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

With the START grant, the Strauss Laboratory established new, cutting-edge Structural Biology capabilities at Stellenbosch University. This includes embarking on an exciting approach in drug discovery initiatives to identify new antimicrobial compounds, using the UK’s world class national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source.

— Dr Blake Balcomb, Strauss Laboratory, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

The START programme has afforded me an opportunity to study towards my PhD studies allowing me access to world class equipment and techniques like X-ray diffraction at Diamond Light Source and provides me with access to the reagents that I need to do my research. I am also getting scientific training, not only in the laboratory but through workshops.

— Maria Hamunyela, technologist at the University of Namibia, and PhD student in the structural biology research group at the University of Pretoria, South Africa

Being involved in the START grant has made a very concrete contribution to my career as a young scientist. Getting to know peers who are working in Structural Biology, and who are using the same techniques as I am, and who have similar research interests has provided a feeling of connectedness.

—Dr Carmien Tolmie, University of the Free State, South Africa