Thulani Makhalanyane or the passion for plankton – Jeune Afrique

From one extreme to the other. One day, Thulani Makhalanyane walks in the Namibian desert, about forty kilometers from Windhoek. A few months later, he joined Scott’s New Zealand base in Antarctica to explore Ross Island and the arid valleys. Two territories that have nothing to do in advance. And yet the connection is obvious to the South African microbiologist. In these areas, where living conditions are very difficult, there are microorganisms that have developed sophisticated survival mechanisms. It is with them that Thulani Makhalanyane is interested – for what is invisible to the naked eye can have a decisive impact on the health of our planet.

Currently aboard the French oceanographic research schooner Tara, the 38-year-old scientist is one of the first South African scientists to focus on marine microbiology. Round and smiling face, anarchic goatee, glasses, Thulani Makhalanyane seems to be the pure product of what he believes in, namely “serious work”. His path, though he only evokes it with modesty, suggests long hours of study and strict daily demands.


Thulani Makhalanyane was born in the small mining town of Klerksdorp in April 1984 and is the son of a nurse and a school principal. His mother is Zulu, his father Sesotho – he now speaks about six languages. “We had enough to eat,” he recalls, immediately emphasizing that he was not living in poverty, but that she was waiting at the door at the end of each month. When my sister came, eight years after I was born, things went a little better. My parents were able to buy a small car. »


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His grandmother runs a “shebeen” where she sells alcohol: police raids are frequent. In school, in township, apartheid reigns until the release of Nelson Mandela. As the racist regime is abolished, the young boy is allowed to become a member of the Christian Academy in Klerksdorp, which is now open to blacks. “The city nevertheless remained very conservative,” he says. The whites have found a way to separate. When we arrived at the school, they were all gone, so there were only three or four left, including the principal’s son! »

Encyclopedia Britannica

On the benches, Thulani Makhalanyane is a diligent and discreet student. “My father was preparing me for school. I was a calm, antisocial child, I spent my time reading. We had several volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home, I took one with me to my room and swallowed it. I always have found an interesting topic that took me on board. I did not really have access to comics, but I did have the encyclopedia! ” Morrison, for whom he has great admiration.

While his parents imagined he was a doctor, his scientific ambitions became clearer in college. “I already knew I wanted to do science, but I still did not know in which field. After becoming a student at Northwest University, he turned to chemistry and biology. In his third year, a research project made him wonder about the impact of cooking in traditional South African food. “At this stage, it was primarily the scientific processes and approaches that fascinated me,” he confides.


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Another research project leads him to study the microorganisms found in the fresh water of a village where a sanitary system for reverse osmosis is to be installed. At the end of this experience, his decision is made: he wants to be a microbiologist. A choice he apparently does not regret: On Tara’s deck, he filters seawater to extract the smallest components of plankton, and he does not pay much attention to the fact that the creatures visible to the naked eye only bring the nets back. The smaller it is, the more it appreciates. “What interests me is what I can not see.”

For her master’s degree, Thulani Makhalanyane joined the University of the Western Cape, where a professor teaches microbiology, with a particular interest in Antarctica, this icy continent that South Africa touches with the finger of the island of Prince Edward and Marion Island. From now on, the student specializes in genetic adaptations of microorganisms, viruses, bacteria and others. If he has a few moments of doubt, determination, work and perseverance characterize his path. After a brief and unconvincing break in the private sector – a company that produces polymers – he decided to complete his PhD. and devote themselves exclusively to research.

This is how he finds himself first in a research base in the Namibian desert, then for four weeks in a base in Antarctica. The result is a collaborative article published in a magazine, ISME Journal *. Others will follow, especially in Scientific reports ** on the impact of ocean currents off South Africa. His field missions lead him off the coast of South Africa, aboard the research vessels RV Phakisa to the near areas and RV Agulhas II to the farthest areas, which he as a child rarely took to the sea. .

Better understand the impact of pollution

In 2014, Thulani Makhalanyane became Professor of Genetics at the University of Pretoria. While there are already courses in oceanography in South Africa, these focus on chemistry, physics or wildlife visible to the naked eye – mammals, fish, birds. “There was no marine microbiology program at the time,” the researcher says. Today I am responsible for 18 students and 3 postdocs. We try to develop these skills and implement new tools and new techniques. This goal requires, in addition to pure scientific research, the building of a network of international and African correspondents.

That is why Thulani Makhalanyane was involved in the AtlantECO project, funded by the European Commission, which brings together around 36 scientific institutions from Europe, Brazil and South Africa. In this context, six major expeditions should make it possible to analyze the function and circulation of marine microorganisms and perhaps better understand the impact of pollution and climate change on these microorganisms.


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After working on a Japanese ship near the Mariana Tomb in the Pacific Ocean, Thulani Makhalanyane thus joined the Tara Ocean Foundation’s Microbiomes mission for a few weeks of scientific sampling in the Benguela River off the coast of Africa, South Namibia, Angola, the DRC and the Republic. Congo, then in the Congo River to Matadi. With the idea of ​​building a regional network of researchers, he is accompanied aboard the schooner by one of his University of Pretoria students, Mancha Mabaso, and by an Angolan researcher from the National Institute for Fisheries and Marine Research. , Suzana Joao Da Conceiçao Nicolau, who thus has the opportunity to work with researchers from other countries.

Predict large-scale development

On the deck of the 36-meter-long sailboat, high-precision measuring instruments designed for a “nano-millimeter” analysis of the ocean, or more precisely of what it contains: zooplankton, phytoplankton, nutrients, geospores, … It’s all about assembling a giant puzzle … without knowing the overall picture ”, sums up Thulani Makhalanyane with pedagogy. But why bother fishing for invisible microorganisms? Because they are the basis of the entire food chain. Because their biomass is such that it affects the planet’s large orbits, such as the climate. Because they are sensitive to all pollution. Because they respond in different ways to variations in their environment.


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“Studying microorganisms, determining the changes that affect them and their reactions, can help predict larger-scale developments,” Makhalanyane adds. If he is not a doctor, as his parents would have liked, the South African today is neither more nor less involved in a diagnosis of the health of the planet. It is not for nothing that the Tara Ocean Foundation’s Microbiomes mission in its African part also covers the mouths of large rivers – Orange, Congo, Senegal – which can easily be imagined to be affected by agriculture and other more or less polluting human activities. . And they dump both sediment and poison into the ocean.

The father of two young children, Thulani Makhalanyane married a forensic analyst. When she intervenes against the corpses, it is already too late. But for the cheerful seeker, there is always hope for the planet, even if that optimism “slowly diminishes”. One question remains: will there be anyone to take into account the diagnoses of oceanographers and microbiologists reading the future in plankton?

* Evidence for hereditary development in Antarctic hypolytic bacterial communities

** Agulha’s current forms of microbial diversity and functionality

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