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Linky Makgahlela makes her mark in genomics

Linky Makgahlela

As a young girl Linky Makgahlela happily played among her grandfather’s farm animals and found herself fascinated by them. Little did she know that would be the beginning of a remarkable journey – one that would lead to her becoming a trendsetter.

The little girl who was surrounded by animals at her grandfather’s house in Mankweng village in the east of Polokwane, went on to become the first South African to hold a PhD in Animal Breeding and Genetics from the University of Helsinki in Finland.

Makgahlela is now a Research Team Manager for animal breeding and genetics at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Animal Production Campus in Tshwane.

Humble beginnings

Her grandfather was a subsistence farmer who owned pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and other animals.

“I used to wonder why pigs are different in colour. My grandfather had all sorts – from white to grey, black and even spotted ones. That used to baffle me a lot. Then I noticed that it was not only pigs that were different in colour but also chickens and cows,” she reminisced, laughing at the memory that she used to milk goats with her cousins whenever they visited their maternal grandfather.

After completing matric, Makgahlela enrolled at the University of the North (now University of Limpopo) to study for a degree in agriculture and majored in animal production.

She said that in her first-year genetics class she learnt that DNA determines the characteristics of a living organism. “That is when I finally got to understand why those pigs, cows and chickens were different in colour. I found it interesting and decided to choose genomics as a career,” she explained.

Genomics is the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution and mapping of genomes, which is an organism’s complete set of DNA.

Endless opportunities

For her Master of Science degree, Makgahlela majored in animal breeding and genetics. Because the University of Limpopo lacked the resources needed to properly teach animal breeding at the time, it collaborated with the ARC to establish an exchange programme for students to do practical work as part of their studies.

That opened a door to endless opportunities for Makgahlela. She used to travel from Limpopo to Tshwane during her Master’s studies and would stay for about three weeks doing her research and learning about the basic programme software that was used for breeding value evaluations.

“I learned that research requires one to work very closely with the industry and I did exactly that. The researchers at the ARC observed my potential and took a liking to me. I was then appointed as the professional development programme student in 2004, and that is how I joined the ARC,” she added.

The ARC is an entity of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and its vision is excellence in agricultural research and development.

Genetic analysis of dairy cattle

“My MSc research looked into the genetic analysis of dairy cattle, focusing on fertility traits.”

She said her field of study was prompted by the fact that many South African farmers have over the years worked on genetically improving milk production. Over time, this has led to a deterioration in the fitness of the cattle, because the genes that play a crucial role in improved milk production are also responsible for reduced fitness.

“The cows that produced high amounts of milk would start struggling with diseases and have fertility problems,” Makgahlela explained.

“We found that many of these dairy farmers were getting rid of those cows that were no longer falling pregnant and it so happened that they were the high-producing milk cows. My research showed that farmers should not only look into milk production traits, but also look at fertility and disease traits so that they can optimise their production levels,” she added.

However, her challenge was that there were insufficient field recording systems and poor data collection.

The literature that she was working with indicated that the best route was to use DNA information, and that is how she ventured further into the genomic space.

She said the recommendations that she and fellow students came up with during their MSc research projects was that fertility traits needed to be included in the genetic evaluation of dairy cattle and that is what the country did in 2009.

“That for me was rewarding: to see that farmers were taking into consideration the recommendations that I came up with in order to improve their businesses,” she said.

Breaking new ground

Makgahlela was not sure how to go about pursuing her PhD ambitions but her supervisors put her in touch with a professor from Iowa State University of Science and Technology in the US.

She visited the university for about six months between 2008 and 2009 to do informal training in genomic technologies.

While there, Makgahlela developed her PhD proposal with the help of the professors from that university.

At that time, no one in South Africa possessed the knowledge to supervise the work that she wanted to pursue. That meant that Makgahlela had to either find a supervisor locally and another one from a foreign country who would supervise the technical side of things, or find a suitable overseas university that would admit her.

She applied to the University of Helsinki in Finland and was accepted. Makgahlela moved to Finland in 2010 to pursue her dreams and came back in 2014. Her job was still waiting for her at the ARC, which also funded her studies.

Upon arrival, she was appointed as a senior researcher.

“It made me feel proud to realise that I was the first one in the country to have that kind of expertise. I was the only one with the skill when I came back from Finland, but now the ARC has invested more in human capital development in this space and I see a number of newcomers to the genomics technology space,” she said.

In 2016, she was appointed as a Research Team Manager, a position that she still occupies.

Some of her responsibilities include keeping up with the trends in genomic selection.

Makgahlela still puts together proposals and shops for funding to support MSc or PhD students to complete their thesis studies while working on related ARC projects.

The most important part of her job is to establish and maintain a good relationship with key stakeholders such as government departments and universities. She also has to constantly engage with the agricultural industry.

In addition, she oversees the administration side of the business and manages, develops and trains people who have the skills needed by the ARC.

Makgahlela’s team consists of 88 people – comprising specialist researchers, senior researchers, researchers, junior researchers and students. “While I am the Research Team Manager for animal breeding and genetics, I am also the Research Team Manager for the germplasm reproductive technologies in Irene in Tshwane.

Finding solutions

“One thing that I love about research is that you come up with a question, you solve the question and come up with solutions that actually change people’s lives. Nothing is as satisfying as knowing that you have developed something that changes lives,” she said.

Two of the associations Makgahlela is currently working with are the Brahman Cattle Breeders’ Society and the Afrikaner Cattle Breeders’ Society. She also works closely with smallholder farmers for her current research projects.

“We keep updating them about technologies that they can use to improve how they do their business,” she said.

Her job does not come without challenges and one of them is that less money is afforded for fundamental research, whereas more money is afforded for developmental research.

She said her main challenge is to overcome the odds and create a vibrant research environment.

“For us to be able to make more impact we need to pool resources,” she said.

Her current research aims to establish a research programme in livestock genomics with the view to implementing genomic selection in the national livestock improvement programmes.

Makgahlela is also investigating harmful/recessive genes impairing fertility in beef cattle and genes associated with adaptation and disease resistance in livestock.

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