Back to top

Patricia Berjak (1939 - )

The Order of Mapungubwe in

Patricia Berjak (1939 - ) Awarded for:
Excellent achievements in and contributing to the understanding of seed science.

Profile of Patricia Berjak

Patricia Berjak, a world leader in the study of seeds, began her career with a BSc degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1962.

She graduated as a biochemist with a first-class BSc (Honours) degree, going on to do Master's research in medicine before realising her calling as a cell biologist focused on seed biology.

Berjak was introduced to the world of seeds and electron microscopy by the biologist-tutor Trevor Villiers in the late 1960s while a young student at the University of Natal.

One of South Africa's few A-rated scientists, she has achieved highly significant breakthroughs in the understanding of the inability of certain seed species to survive for sufficiently long periods in storage, thus undermining food security in the developing world.

Berjak's innovative research has been highly recognised. She is an elected member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a Fellow of the University of Natal, the Royal Society of South Africa and the Third World Academy of Sciences.

In 2001, Berjak was awarded the Silver Medal of the South African Association of Botanists for research excellence. In 2004, she received the Department of Science and Technology's Distinguished Woman Scientist Award for her consistent contributions to science over her entire career.

Berjak was recently nominated, unopposed, as president-elect of the International Society for Seed Science. She will assume office in 2008.

She asserts that her achievements result from the contributions of many scientists, including her husband Professor Norman Pammenter, who is a top plant scientist himself.

Berjak is committed to the study of seeds. She says the people of Africa, despite their geographical and cultural diversity, are bound together by concerns about food security and the unreliability of rainfall across much of the continent. For her, this makes the scientific study of seeds and their storage an imperative.

Berjak, supported by her research students and other major collaborators, has uncovered much about the nature of recalcitrant seeds to survive for insufficiently short periods in storage.

Based on this knowledge, the group has gone on to refine storage practices; define the role of fungi associated with seed species deterioration; and develop the application of cryobiology principles to the long-term conservation of the plant species that produce recalcitrant seeds.

Recalcitrant seeds, unlike orthodox seeds, are wet and are destroyed when they dry out. Orthodox seeds, for example maize seeds, are dry and can be stored for longer periods before water allows them to germinate and grow into mature plants.

Recalcitrant seeds cannot be stored in the normal kinds of conditions that keep orthodox seeds. Examples of recalcitrant seeds include mangos, litchi, avocados, coconuts, rubber trees, cocoa trees and many plant species used in traditional medicine.

Maize seeds, however, a staple in much of Africa, lose their viability when stored under warm, relatively high humidity conditions that also encourage fatal fungal growth in the seeds.

Berjak's doctoral research discovered the means to substantially reduce fungal growth in maize seeds that result from poor storage conditions. Maize seeds can now be stored for substantially longer periods, especially in regions frequently affected by drought, contributing to better food security.

Berjak's focus also includes saving from extinction the genetic material of the plants used in traditional medicine, among Africa's most valuable and sought-after plants.

Patricia Berjak has devoted her entire career to a priority need of the developing world and has achieved significant success to inspire hope.

At present she continues her work as professor at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.