South African school science project takes on maize toxins

21 April 2016

Two matric learners from Khayelitsha, Kholiswa Ntshinga and Yolanda Nkala, have discovered a low-cost way to reduce the amount of mycotoxin-producing fungi in maize.

Mycotoxin poisoning can damage the human nervous system as well as cause growth stunting in children and cancers, in particular liver and oesophageal.

During their initial field research, studying the crops of subsistence farmers in rural Eastern Cape, the learners found that the maize, which is grown without the use of pesticides, showed dangerous levels of mycotoxins. They also found cases of oesophageal cancer in residents who drank traditional maize beer contaminated with the toxin. Maize is the staple food of residents in the area, as well as thousands of people across the country who grow their own crops.

Using their research, the learners developed a preliminary process that theoretically could remove the toxins more easily and closer to the source of the food. While details of the process are still being verified by biologists, it has already drawn the attention of some of the country’s leading experts in the field.

Wentzel Gelderblom, director of the Institute of Biomedical and Microbial Biotechnology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said their research could definitely help save many lives.

“These young girls are brilliant. They are now part of a global scientific community that is finding ways to eliminate human exposure to mycotoxins and we need more of that,” Gelderblom told TimesLive.

In addition to winning two South Africa science prizes, the Expo for Young Scientists and Eskom’s International Science Fair, the two learners were also selected to submit their findings to the Beijing International Science Fair earlier this year, where they won silver medals in the medicines category and a special award for innovation in agriculture.

Nkala was selected as one of Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans 2015 for her continuing work in agriculture science and app development. Ntshinga is currently studying program coding at Code4Africa.

Source: South African Expo for Young Scientists