History of the Department of Biochemistry at UJ

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Biochemistry History

The Department of Biochemistry at the old Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit (RAU) was established in 1969 with Prof Johan Schabort as the first head. TheDepartment was initially regarded as a postgraduate one with only two pregraduate modules. The first students registered in 1970 and by 1972 the number of pregraduate modules were increased to four. Biochemistry developed as a discipline from a strong Chemistry basis and the approach to teaching and research was from that perspective. Students who wanted to pursue postgraduate studies had to have Chemistry as a major and the research focus of the Department was Protein Chemistry and Enzymology.

In 1986 Prof Schabort took early retirement and Dr Ian Dubery became the new HoD. He completed a sabbatical year at the Salk Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology in San Diego, USA, and upon his return, introduced Molecular Biology to the Department. This sub-discipline of Biochemistry experienced an explosive growth in the 1980s and impacted tremendously on the way research in Biochemistry was performed. With the advent of recombinant DNA technology, it become possible to study individual genes at the molecular level, to clone and express, and to create genetically modified organisms.

Although Biochemistry as a discipline was moving away from Chemistry and towards the Life Sciences, the Department of Biochemistry merged, in the era of consolidation of academic Departments, with the Department of Chemistry to form a new Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1989.

Up to this point Biochemistry started only in the second year and we managed to change this and expanded the number of pregraduate modules to six, starting in the first year. This exposed more students to Biochemistry as a discipline and resulted in more students choosing Biochemistry as one of their majors for the BSc degrees. During the 1990s Biochemistry at RAU experienced a steady growth in both pre-and postgraduate student numbers, and established itself as one of the leading Biochemistry Departments at South African Universities, known for high quality research and well trained students.

Biochemistry as a science continued to grow and new fields of scientific investigation known as the ‘omics (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics) together with Bioinformatics, developed. By 2005, with the merger between RAU, TWR and Vista University, it became time for Biochemistry to re-establish itself as an independent Department.

Today, Biochemistry fulfills a key role in the Faculty of Science with links to both the Life and Environmental Sciences as well as the Physical Sciences. Currently our Department consists of eight academic staff, two Instrumental Scientists and one Technical Manager. We offer postgraduate training in various fields of specialization covering the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of plants, mammals and microbes.

After more than 20 years at the helm, Prof Dubery elected to focus on his new tasks as Research Professor and Prof Marianne Cronje was appointed as new HoD from 2011 to 2018.

In 2018, Prof Lizelle Piater was appointed as the new HoD.