Biochemistry & Microbiology


Welcome to the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rhodes University

Eight academic staff spread across the two disciplines offer undergraduate  training in Biochemistry and Microbiology, and postgraduate training in Biochemistry, Microbiology and Bioinformatics.

Within these pages you will find information on the courses on offer, the research focus of each staff member as well as vacancies and information on how to apply to the university to further your studies.

Current and prospective students are welcome to contact staff for further information related to their discipline or field of research.  

 Path to Postgrad 2023

Path to Postgrad 2023: Showcase of postgraduate offerings in Biochemistry and Microbiology


Cancer and Stem Cell Biology

Prof Adrienne L. Edkins

Our group is studying the biochemistry and cell biology of the molecular chaperone, Hsp90, in cancer and stem cell biology. We use a range of biochemical (recombinant protein expression), molecular (quantitative RT-PCR, RNA interference) and cell biological (transfection, confocal microscopy and flow cytometry) techniques in order to elucidate the activity of Hsp90 and its co-chaperone, Hop, in specific cellular processes that underpin cancer and stem cell biology. In addition to our research on human chaperones, our research group is interested in comparative studies of Hsp90 complex from other organisms. These studies are interesting in that they may identify differences between the different systems that could be useful in understanding the species specific features of chaperones and may identify exploitable differences between the structure of the human and Hsp90 from other species to complement our studies to identify novel natural product inhibitors of Hsp90.

Malaria Parasite Cell Biology

Prof Heinrich Hoppe

Our group is predominantly focused on exploring ADP-ribosylation factor (ARF) GTPases as drug targets for the development of novel therapeutics against malaria and cancer. This entails the development of plate-based assays to robustly detect the activation and deactivation of ARF GTPases by regulatory proteins, implementing these assays in screens for novel ARF inhibitors and performing biochemical and cell biological experiments to elucidate the effects of the inhibitors on cultured cells/parasites. A second activity of the group is to perform routine phenotypic assays to screen compounds for activity against malaria parasites (Plasmodium falciparum), trypanosomes (Trypanosoma brucei) and mammalian cells. These screens are conducted to facilitate the vibrant drug discovery programs in the Rhodes University Centre for Chemico- and Biomedicinal Research.

Enzyme Biotechnology, Bioproducts

Prof Brett Pletschke

Our group’s research interest lies in the field of enzyme biotechnology, more specifically in the use of enzymes in bioconversion to generate bioproducts from renewable biological resources, e.g. lignocellulose and seaweeds (macroalgae) for the bioeconomy. Since 2006 we have established ourselves firmly in the area of carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZymes) and the synergisms between these enzymes (cellulases, xylanases and mannanases) - mainly for optimising biofuel production.  Currently (2019), we are looking at xylanases for improving digestibility of animal feeds, mannanases for the production of prebiotic manno-oligosaccharides (MOS), and the extraction of seaweed derived fucoidans and other enzyme inhibitors compounds from seaweeds for use as anti-diabetic/anti-obesity/anti-cancer agents.


Prof Ozlem Tastan Bishop

Prof Tastan Bishop's research interest combines structural bioinformatics and comparative genomics. Research projects in her group range from drug discovery to agricultural studies to databases. Various bioinformatics approaches are used to model protein structures, to analyse protein structure - function relationship, to do protein-ligand and protein-protein docking as well as molecular dynamics calculations. Further, tool development and database construction are important aspects of the group's work. For further information, visit RUBi webpage (click here).

Exploring complex ecosystems

Dr Brendan Wilhelmi

Exploring complex ecosystems

Dr Wilhelmi's research group investigates complex microbiomes and their functions using a combination of meta-barcoding and metabolomics. The main focus of the research group is the research of the biology of soilless plant growth systems. In a country where food security and erratic water resources are of increasing concern, water based agricultural systems may provide a viable alternative to food production. These growth systems are dependent on a constant supply of nutrients to plants, which is influenced by the water chemistry, as well as the bacterial populations that mineralise organic matter in these ecosystems. In the case of aquaponics, the research focusses on identifying the bacterial populations and their possibly functions. The research includes the investigation of nutrient availability, its effect on fish and plant health, and nutritional biomarkers in the plants.

The Female Cancers Research at Rhodes University (FemCR2U)

Dr Jo-Anne de la Mare

The Female Cancers Research at Rhodes University (FemCR2U) group focuses on preclinical drug discovery for female cancers including triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) and cervical cancer. This work is made possible by a growing network of collaborators from across South Africa, including chemists from six provinces. The screening and characterization of novel inhibitors for TNBC is funded by the National Research Foundation. In addition, a recent award by the Medical Research Council of South Africa as part of the MRC-EC-SHIP programme will see the group attempting to establish cervical cancer cell lines from biopsy samples from Eastern Cape women, towards more relevant disease models for the African context, as well as allowing for genetic characterization of such lines towards the identification of novel driver mutations for this disease.

Mycorrhizal Research Group

Prof Joanna Dames

Mycorrhizal fungi are soil fungi which form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the majority of plant species including many economically important crops. The Mycorrhizal Research Laboratory is dedicated to research in this field and research has focused on aspects of their biology, ecology, characterization, biodiversity, commercial application, their interaction with other soil microorganisms as well as benefits to both the soil environment and plant production.  Mycorrhizal types of interest are the ectomycorrhizal fungi, the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and the ericoid mycorrhizal fungi because of their importance in the Forestry, Agriculture, Horticulture and Rehabilitation industries.

Microbial Ecology and Marine Natural Products Research

Prof Rosemary Dorrington

More than half of new pharmaceutical drugs on the market or in clinical trials are natural products (NPs) and their derivatives, the majority of which come from marine sources. Prof Dorrington’s research is focused on harnessing the pharmaceutical potential of bioactive marine NPs produced by marine sponges, ascidians and their associated microbiota. The biodiscovery pipeline includes searching for new invertebrate species producing novel bioactive NPs, using metabolomics and microbial genomics approaches to investigate environmental factors that influence secondary metabolite production and to elucidate putative biosynthetic pathways

Molecular Virology

Prof Caroline Knox

Research in Prof Knox’s laboratory focuses on the molecular biology of two economically important families of viruses: the Baculoviridae and the Picornaviridae. Baculoviruses are double-stranded DNA viruses that infect insects and can therefore be exploited for the control of phytosanitory crop pests such as the false codling moth. This research, conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Biological Control (Rhodes University) and Citrus Research International (Port Elizabeth) involves the genetic and biological characterisation of viruses infecting a range of crop pests. Picornaviruses are single-stranded RNA viruses that cause a range of serious human and animal diseases. This research involves an investigation into the molecular mechanisms by which Picornaviruses interact with host cells during replication and assembly, with a view to uncovering novel antiviral strategies for disease control.

Bacterial Pathogenesis

Dr Garth Abrahams

Many pathogenic bacteria have evolved mechanisms to facilitate their adherence and uptake into eukaryotic host cells. Within the intracellular environment, these pathogenic bacteria frequently modify or manipulate host cell functions and resources to promote their intracellular replication, survival and/or persistence. Several pathogenic bacterial species also capable of subverting host cell defences, thereby conferring these microbes with the ability to evade detection and elimination by host immune defence systems. The molecular mechanisms used by these bacteria to either adhere, enter, survive, replicate, and exit host cells is, however, only partially understood. The research in our laboratory is directed at studying the pathogenic interactions that occur between bacteria such as S. enterica and M. tuberculosis and their respective host cells.