Health & Medical

From Stellenbosch to Saskatchewan: microbes across the globe

by Marcelle van Niekerk


A whiteboard dominates the wall of Professor Gideon Wolfaardt’s office. Permanent markers leave trails of colourful writing, bleeding into hastily drawn sketches. In the corner there’s a drawing of what looks like a bullet. Wolfaardt himself finishes typing on his computer and pushes it away.

“Sorry, I was busy with a proposal to a medical board,” he smiles. “My deadline is today!”

When asked about the bullet, his face lights up. He pulls up the computer and opens a slideshow showing a more detailed illustration of the sketch. It’s not a bullet, but a container designed to store nuclear waste.

“I’ve been working with the Nuclear Waste Management Organisation from Canada since 2010,” he explains. “The goal is to store radioactive waste in stainless steel capsules deep underground in engineered barrier systems that’ll be stable for millions of years. This also has much relevance to South Africa.”

Wolfaardt is not an engineer or a doctor. Whether it’s nuclear waste, infectious diseases or water safety, he studies microbes: tiny, single-cell organisms invisible to the naked eye.

“It’s difficult for me not to sound like a jack of all trades,” he laughs. “But microbes touch every aspect of our lives – our health, food quality, our water. Mostly, I don’t work with microbiologists. I work with engineers, doctors, geologists, biochemists and lawyers. The challenges we face are complex. You won’t solve them from one dimension.”

His work has taken him across the globe. Besides South Africa, Wolfaardt has spent most of his time at Ryerson University in Canada, where he was the Canada research chair in Environmental Interfaces and Biofilms since 2004. Last year, Wolfaardt returned to South Africa to take up a new research chair position hosted by Stellenbosch University’s Water Institute.

When he first left South Africa in 1994, he only intended to work in Canada for a few years, as an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan. He would end up flitting between the two countries, returning to Canada in 2004 to accept the position of research chair at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“I went there for the first time in 1990 as a PhD student, on a shoestring budget: man, wife and young child. We did more in the first three years than the rest combined, because we thought we wouldn’t be there for long. We went camping, skiing, climbed mountains, drove down for long weekends to Montana. It was unbelievable.”

But now he’s back, and won’t be crossing the Atlantic so frequently anymore.

“This is my home, and I’m very loyal to it,” he says. “I want to retire here. Canada is amazing – throughout history, they’ve done so much for other countries. But still: what I want to smell, hear and see is the wilderness of South Africa. You don’t see it anywhere else in the world, and I’ve been to many places.”

Although the East Rand Water Care Company (ERWAT) Chair in Wastewater Management keeps him busy, Wolfaardt still teaches microbiology at Stellenbosch University. He also keeps in touch with his colleagues and projects in Canada. Wolfaardt chuckles when asked whether he enjoys juggling it all.

“It’s very stimulating,” he says. “You can’t choose your family or your colleagues, but you can choose your collaborators. I’m privileged to work in the kind of environment that I do. People who are like-minded find one another.”

The projects he’s currently working on swing from nuclear waste management in Canada to improving water quality with the Water Institute. However, microbes worm their way into everything he does.

“I’m an environmental microbiologist. Whether it’s an infection or a water-treatment system, or nuclear waste – it’s all an environment which contains microbes. My lab tries to understand how these organisms interact with their environment.

“We realise microbes adapt to their environment,” he continues. “If you want them to work for you, you have to create the right environment. If the microbes are the bad guys, you need to adapt the environment in such a way that their mechanisms are short-circuited.”

Prof Gideon Wolfaardt
Prof Gideon Wolfaardt

Nearly ten years ago, Wolfaardt waged just such a war on microbes that were killing patients in a trauma room in Canada.

“I got a call from a man called Michael Gardam,” he says. Gardam is the director of Infection Prevention and Control at the University Health Network in Toronto. “In one of their hospitals they had a tremendous problem with infections. Twelve people had already died, and they couldn’t understand why.

“We began searching the environment systematically, and found a perfect match in the drains. Now, sick people don’t generally lick drains. So how did it reach them?”

The scientists used fluorescent gel to solve the mystery, carefully trickling it down the drains in the area. When they darkened the room and used the sink, the answer stared them in the face.

“There was splatter everywhere on the table next to the sink,” Wolfaardt continues. “The design of the tap was to blame: every time the doctors washed their hands, it splashed on their equipment.”

A biofilm had formed in the drain – or what the layperson would call ‘sludge’. When splashed on operating equipment, a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa wreaked havoc among patients. A lawsuit followed on the heels of the publication of Wolfaardt and his colleagues’ findings in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology. He points to the case as an example of how much work is still needed to fully understand biofilms.

“Microorganisms survive by sticking together as a group,” he explains. “They outsmart us every time, because of our mindset. We think we’re dealing with one thing – we study one organism, and get to know it inside and out. But in a group, it’s a totally different thing.”

Wolfaardt believes a better understanding of how microorganisms behave can also help solve the country’s water crisis.

“My lab’s focus here is optimising the activity of microorganisms, to clean water. In the South African context, we have to see microbes as our buddies to help clean the water,” Wolfaardt argues.  “In the whole water purification system, it’s microorganisms doing most of the work.”

But when it comes to South Africa’s water, there are many facets of the problem.

“Something that’s increasingly becoming a problem worldwide is micro-pollutants,” he said. “Many of them are what we call endocrine disruptors. Those molecules mimic what’s happening inside our bodies. It comes from our personal care products – from mascara to deodorant, and medication, they have an immense amount of these molecules. They don’t break down properly in nature. Our lab focuses on what makes them persist like that in our environment.”

A sense of urgency creeps into his voice as he talks about tackling the environmental crisis. In our era of rapid development, he worries that it gets lost in the noise.

“We’re in the sustainability revolution,” he says, running a hand through his greying hair. “We’re racing toward 9 billion people. Rapid change is happening not over centuries, but within decades. Our challenge is to adapt quickly, and not to sit in our air-conditioned little offices thinking about solutions. We need to work on solutions.”

Besides his research, Wolfaardt joined environmental organisation Greenpeace in an effort to contribute to such solutions.

“We need activists, and I admire their passion,” he said, but shakes his head as he speaks of his relationship with the organisation. “We’ve had a lot of arguments about nuclear energy. I don’t see many other options. If we want to continue living as we do, there’s no way we’ll produce enough energy from dirty oil and coal.”

However, he disagrees with South Africa’s plans to acquire nuclear power plants. “It’s too expensive for us. But in Canada, it’s a much cleaner option and affordable.”

Reflecting on his career, Wolfaardt says his passion for microbiology evolved slowly. Far from setting out on his studies with a plan firmly in mind, amazing opportunities presented themselves that were to good to ignore.

“I studied microbiology by default, actually,” he laughs. “I would’ve done chemical engineering. Then on New Year’s Eve, before I was meant to start, I was with some of my friends who convinced me to study in Bloemfontein, where I studied botany,” he says. “I started doing microbiology in my third year.”

Eventually, he went to work for the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. They allowed him to continue his studies while working. After sending a fax to the University of Saskatchewan about an unrelated matter, he was first offered the opportunity to do a PhD there and later became an adjunct professor. Five and half years at Stellenbosch followed this, first as senior lecturer and then associate professor, before being offered a Canada research chair at Ryerson University.

Since those early days in 1994, he has supervised multiple theses, acted as the sub-editor for journals such as the Canadian Journal for Microbiology and Applied and Environmental Microbiology, and published articles at a rapid pace. But he looks somewhat surprised when one mentions his academic success.

“I grew up in the bundus, on a farm in Natal. I never thought I’d end up in academics. As you can see, my career path was not really planned,” Wolfaardt smiles. “I didn’t even know where Saskatchewan was…this was before Google Maps. I had to get out my atlas, and searched until I saw it was in Canada.

He points to his PhD research on biofilms as some of the most enjoyable work he’s done.

“It just opened new doors for me. I even enjoyed going to congresses. These days I’d rather climb a mountain than go to a congress, but back then it was all still new to me.”

He pauses, glancing around his expansive office. “But I have to say, I enjoy what I’m doing now, too. This is close to my ultimate.”

Far from finding it difficult to balance all his responsibilities, he says he enjoys the challenge of tackling complex environmental problems.

“I’m trying to create an umbrella for people of different disciplines to work together,” he says, gesturing toward another part of the room. The framed certificates on the wall form a visual history of Wolfaardt’s collaborations.

“It makes me very worried and sad to see how we’re destroying the planet. We’re making it worse and worse. At some stage, we won’t have control over it anymore. That’s why it’s so important to have forums for people to look into each other’s disciplines. We just won’t solve the problem from one side.”

* Freelance journalist Marcelle van Niekerk wrote this article last year as part of her journalism studies at Stellenbosch University.

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