Redesigning photosynthesis to meet global food and energy needs of the 21st century. Review by SJ Taylor (PhD).

Redesigning photosynthesis in plants

An interesting review paper by Ort et al (2015) sketches out the possibilities for re-designing or  ‘re-evolving’ the complex photosynthetic mechanism of crop plants to increase harvestable yields. The authors cite the need for this kind of research is to address the growing limits on crop productivity measured against the projections for human population growth. While the main constraint on crop productivity at the moment is the availability of water and the lack of new lands for agricultural expansion in the developed countries, beyond this, many crops are also at their production limits, and not much more can be done to up their yields.  An important yield factor is that plants are not able to use all the photons they capture, and in fact, have to shut their stomata to conserve water, and so are not photosynthesizing maximally at midday when the light is intense. There are many other such constraints to maximum photosynthesis.

Private grain silos in South Africa, to store the maize harvest. Photograph SJ Taylor

Another key concern is that plants have evolved in an atmosphere of 240 ppm of carbon dioxide, and despite hopes about ‘carbon fertilization’ upping plant productivity, levels of 400 ppm and above will lead to kinetic limitations in the regeneration of the C02 acceptor molecule, ribulose-1,5 bisphosphate (RuBP), and could potentially stall photosynthesis in plants. This type of challenge may be eventually be tackled  through genetic engineering manipulations.

Who is carrying out this research?

Research has to have its own narrative, otherwise it will not attract funding, hence the northern hemisphere ‘shortage of land’ narrative of Ort et al., (2015). A book on African agricultural development makes a case for the 60% of Africa’s rich agricultural lands that have not been utilized effectively, and could become the breadbasket of the world, so no shortage of land in Africa, just a lack of basic research, basic investment in technology, basic provisions of market information and prices, access to markets and roads would make a huge different in crop production (Kirsten, Dorward, Poulton and Vink, 2009) without the need to re-engineer photosynthesis at great research cost.

What is interesting about the Ort et al (2015) paper is the sheer number of researchers involved in drafting this work (25) and the spread of research facilities across universities (USA, Amsterdam, UK, Germany, China, Australia), or mostly USA universities with a solid cohort of German collaborators, one Australian collaborator and one Chinese collaborating institute. Laboratories are mostly university based departments and institutes and are typically departments of biology, microbiology, crop sciences, genetics and cell biology, and computational biology. The lead author (Donald R Ort) is at the Global Change and Photosynthesis Research Unit at the University of Illinois, Urbana, while another author is at the Energy Institute for Genomics and Proteomics, University of California, Los Angeles. Another author is at the Centre for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis, at Arizonan State University. This attests to the initial paragraph in the publication which states that it is not just food shortages that this research could address, but the needs of a bio-economy in terms of bioenergy, chemical feed-stocks and biopharmaceuticals, all of which would require increased agricultural productivity, perhaps by as much at 60 – 120 % over 1960 levels of global food production.

One of the research centres conducting this photosynthesis research is the ExxonMobil Biomedical Sciences, Annandale, USA – which indicates that there are big business interests in the outcomes of this type of work.  ExxonMobil is an American multinational oil and gas company, and is one of the world’s largest international oil and gas companies (Wikipedia).

Plant breeding won’t be able to improve photosynthesis

Given the massive markets for food, bioenergy and novel plant chemicals, it  is now understood  that plant breeding alone will not be able to overcome any of the constraints to greater production of plants. No can photosynthetic up-scaling in plants be done through plant breeding, and that the only way forward is through thoroughly understanding the mechanics of photosynthesis (which is well known) and the genetic controls (not so well known), and applying novel genetic engineering mechanisms to the major crops.

There is now 60 years of research into the mechanism of photosynthesis, focusing on both green plants and photosynthetic microorganisms that are able to use energy from the sun to fix inorganic carbon from the atmosphere and create organic sugars through a complex pathway. These sugars are the building blocks for cellular products and process.  Research has investigated the ways in which plants and some microorganisms (cyanobacteria) capture light and C02and convert it into biomass,  all of which is under genetic control (Ort et al, 2015).  In plants, this is complicated by the way that plants partition some of this biomass into a harvestable product

Another complication is that more advanced plants (the C4 plants), with the first sugar formed from photosynthesis being a four carbon molecule, rather than the three carbon molecule of the C3 plants.  C4 plants include many of the monocotyledonous crops that are our main source of basic food (maize, sugarcane, but not rice).

Manipulating photosynthesis is no easy task

Manipulating photosynthesis is no easy task. There are many challenges in the genetic manipulation of the genes involved in photosynthesis in seed plants, including a lack of suitably characterised promoters, terminators and chloroplast transport signals, and a lack of mature technologies to stably transform very large DNA segments (say with 10 whole genes) into plants, and a lack of reliable technologies to do site-directed engineering of the plant or plastid genome  (Ort et al, 2015).  Even though we do understand the complex plant and microbial metabolic pathways by which photosynthesis takes place, we do not entirely understand how all these are controlled by their respective genes. In plants, the traits linked to photosynthesis include the anatomical features of higher plants as well as the biochemical components that all work together to increase the internal concentration of C02 in cells before it can be fixed by Rubisco (the ribulose-1,5-bisphospate carboxylase/oxygenase enzyme).  

There could also be ways to increase the light spectrum used by plants, and this is one of the aspects being investigated using novel photosystems from microbial organisms that use different parts of the visible spectrum.

Storage tanks, Graaf Reinett, storing agave spirits fermented from farm-grown agave plants, essentially also a potential way of producing biofuels from a range of wild-grown invasive plants. Photograph SJ Taylor

Genetic engineering of chloroplasts

Genetic manipulation of the plant chloroplast is not so simple, and although some work has been done successfully in the lab, this has not involved any of the plants we use as crops.  A major challenge in redesigning photosynthesis in plants is the complexity of the thylakoid membranes  inside the chloroplasts,, and that the chloroplasts and their genome is separate from the nuclear genome, and all are bounded by membranes. Finally, the plant cell has both membranes and a cell wall.  The leaf also has many layers of cells with different functions, and air spaces lined to the outside atmosphere through stomata.

Experimenting with photosynthesis in algae or photosynthetic bacteria (cyanobacteria) is much simpler, and there are model species for experimenting with photosynthesis in these single cell organisms.  Following much research on these organisms, it may be a viable possibility to replace the more complex mechanisms in advanced plants with some of the much simpler mechanisms of unicellular organisms.  Another challenge is understanding how changes made to genes in the chloroplast would scale up to the whole plant, and this would have to be assessed through countless lab and field trials. 

Creating synthetic genomes

It may also be possible to create synthetic genomes (currently only done in a model bacterial system) and to redesign the proteins in the photosynthetic process e.g. to redesign Rubisco. It is even potentially possible to redesign the plant canopy itself so that different parts of the plant have new mechanisms to optimise the capture of photons and C02 and perform the synthesis of those first sugar molecules. This concept is called the ‘Smart Canopy’ concept, and would involve understanding the inner working of plants and photosynthesis, replicating this synthetically, as well as modelling the way light falls on different parts of the plant.

Climate change and big business

One of the issues that climate activists worry about is big business benefiting from climate change, for example, big seed companies cornering the market in drought resistant cultivars of major crops, insurance  companies benefiting from insuring people at risk, and potentially, oil companies beginning to move into the biofuels market.  Although there will be vast impacts on global economic growth, say experts, there will be people and businesses that profit from the global climate crisis. In some cases, the line between getting rich and providing an essential adaptation service is not so clear. For example, the two fastest-growing occupations in the United State are solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians, and so the renewable energy sector benefits from climate change, while other businesses are beginning to calculate their risks from climate change (for example, coastal real estate) and what climate change will cost them.

Technical and ethical challenges of synthetic multi-GMO plants with manipulated photosynthesis

Many of the ideas expressed by Ort et al (2015) are ‘thought experiments’ – hypothetical schemas that could yield results, if only a massive amount of research funding could be found.  Much of the research will lead to a greater understanding of photosynthesis, and the final outcomes may not necessarily be better crops, but new ways of capturing light and turning it into energy, perhaps a new era of photovoltaics.

In general, creating new plants with up-scaled photosynthetic mechanisms would involve genetic engineering and the use of synthetic biology on a very large scale and pose a number of significant technical and ethical challenges, for example, in terms of GMOs (Ort et al, 2015). Ort et al., (2015) also comment that overcoming all the severe challenges will require major investment in long-term research programmes, and which is not being made yet, at least not in the public sector.

University field experiments, South Africa. Photograph by SJ Taylor.

Ort DR, Merchant SS and Alric J and 22 other authors (2015). Redesigning photosynthesis to sustainably meet global food and bioenergy demand. PNAS 112(28): 8529 – 8536.

Kirsten JF., Dorward AR., Poulton C., and Vink N (eds) (2009). Perspectives on African Agricultural Development. International Food Policy Research Institute.

AfroMont Independent

Water forms the key ecosystem value from mountains in South Africa

For humankind, mountains are essential for life as they provide water for much of the global population (Viviroli et al., 2007).  South Africa is no different. We often hear that South Africa is a water-stressed country, and that the finite water resources will be a constraint on further economic growth. In 1998, the IPCC noted that water availability in African upland countries (including South Africa) would decline – in the case of South Africa to below the 1000 cubic metres per capita per annum threshold deemed to be a standard for ‘well-being’ (Beniston, 2003). This decline will be driven by both population growth and predicted modified precipitation patterns.

Fresh water stream in the Drakensberg Mountains foothills. Photograph SJ Taylor

Climate  change  is  only  one  of  several  drivers  currently  informing  water  resource planning  and  decisions  in  South  Africa.  Most  critically,  surface  water  resources  were already  over-allocated  and  experiencing  water  stress  by  the  year  2000  in  five  of  19 Water Management Areas (WMAs). Demand is expected to increase with economic  growth,  increased  urbanisation, higher  standards  of  living  and  population growth.  Surface-and  groundwater  are  also  exposed  to  contamination  and  pollution from  diffuse  urban,  industrial,  and  agricultural  sources,  as  well  as  point  sources  at water treatment works, land-fills and mines. All of these changes will have significant impacts on the future availability of water resources (SNC, 2011: 71).

 For this reason, South Africa should work harder to ensure that mountain catchments, the source of most of South Africa’s water, remain in as near pristine condition as possible.  An ambitious data gathering programme is needed, along with high altitude observatories (weather stations, river flow monitoring equipment and biodiversity study sites). The  net  impacts  are  speculative,  but  increased  tree  cover  driven  by  rising  CO2 and  climatic  changes  could  have  adverse impacts  on  surface  water  flows  in  the  currently  grassland-dominated  catchments  of the  Drakensberg  – a  major  source  region  for South  Africa’s water    supply;    while    appropriate    control    of    tree   establishment    through    fire  management could offset this change (SNC, 2011: 86).

Gauteng province, the economic heartland of South aFrica, and now the most populous province, receives water from the Vaal River catchment, and water from the Lesotho Highlands Water project augments the Vaal system,  ensuring the livelihoods of around 11 million persons in Gauteng and supporting the entire economy of Gauteng – industry, mining, power generation and agriculture. The Gauteng GDP is R897 553  million (2010), almost none of which would be secure without the water from the Drakensberg/Maloti highlands catchment.

The principal dams that supply the Cape Town Metropolitan area in the Western Cape province are all located in the Cape Fold Mountains to the east of Cape Town. They are the Theewaterskloof Dam, Wemmershoek Dam,  the Steenbras Dams (Upper and lower), the Voëlvlei Dam and the  Berg River Dam. As we know, these dams have been empty in the last few years, creating a water crisis in Cape Town. Cape Town was said to be the first big city in the world to actually run out of water.

The Senqu-Orange Basin, which also originates from the Lesotho Highlands, supports around 18 million persons, plus irrigation and mining projects worth many millions. A significant amount of water from the Orange River is transferred from the Gariep dam into the Fish River catchment in the Eastern Cape to supply irrigation requirements for about 51 500 ha in this province as well a part of the requirements of the city of Port Elizabeth. When released from the Gariep and Vanderkloof dams the water is used for hydropower generation and forms part of Escom’s (the national electricity supplier) capacity to meet peak electricity demands.

The Senqu Orange  River relies completely on Lesotho’s mountain catchments which are now very degraded through poor land management and over-grazing. Viviroli et al. (2003) place this river in their “Group 1” which is a category indicating that these mountain catchments and their streams have immense hydrological significance for downstream lowlands. The maintenance of ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services of this and other smaller rivers with mountain catchments depends entirely on the biodiversity in the mountain catchment areas (Korner, 2004). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in 2007 that mountain regions will be particularly affected by climate change, and that hydrological changes could already be observed.

In light of South Africa’s energy constraints, the ‘health’ of mountain catchments and continued flow of good quality water through pumped storage schemes are worth mentioning as they rely on altitude to function.

Early warning systems for tracking global change in mountains

As mountain catchments and their health are so vital to the continued economic growth and human wellbeing in  South Africa, we  do not want to see mountain catchments ‘change’ without early warning of such adverse changes. We thus need an early warning system to alert decision makers and scientists when ‘thresholds of concern’ have been reached in high altitude mountain catchments.  For this reason, long term data collecting, through an array of weather stations and other monitoring technologies, is now necessary to give us the data needed to predict, create scenarios and take early action when negative trends are noted.

We also need to understand, through biodiversity monitoring, what sort of species declines (or increases) lead to ecosystem change and/or reduced ecosystem functioning.

Gazanias and insect pollinators, Drakensberg foothills near Monk’s Cowl. Photograph by SJ Taylor

Also, as a consequence of the steep topographic and climatic gradients in mountains, understanding the genetic diversity (and hence demographic history) of montane taxa will provide information not only on a species’ past, but also illuminate the potential responses of a species to future changes from a genetic perspective, as demographic changes may have occurred over comparatively short distances in relatively short time frames. However, actually demonstrating that climate change has resulted in changes in selection pressures on an organism is difficult, and many studies use phenotypic data to show a response, but cannot link this to directional selection at the genetic level (Holt, 1990; Gienapp et a., 2008).


While there is already formal monitoring of river quality and quantity in South Africa, through Integrated Water Management initiatives, but there are no high altitude mountain observatories tracking change to precipitation and temperatures at this level. Weather stations in the Drakensberg and Malutis do exist, but there are too few of them. There are no long-term monitoring programmes to track key indicator species of the montane biota of South Africa. This research needs to be geared towards multiple agendas, notably assisting water managers towards achieving water security for South Africa;  conservation unique montane biodiversity and ecosystem features; and preparing for climate change and a future where water may be much more constrained than presently.

Selected information sources

Barthlott, W., Hostert, A., Kier, G., H., Kuper, W., Kreft, H., Mutke, J., Rafiqpoor, D. and  Sommer, H. 2007. Geographic patterns of vascular plant diversity at continental to global scales. Erdkunde 61: 305-315.

Beniston, M. (2003). Climatic change in mountain regions: a review of possible impacts. Climate change 59: 5-31.

Botes, A., McGeoch, M.A., Robertson, H.G., Van Niekerk, A., Davids, H.P. and  Chown, S.L., 2006. Ants, altitude and change in the northern Cape Floristic Region. Journal of Biogeography 33, 71-90

Coetzee, B.W.T., Robertson, M.P., Erasmus, B.F.N., van Rensburg, B.J. and  Thuiller, W. 2009. Ensemble models predict Important Bird Areas in southern Africa will become less effective for conserving endemic birds under climate change. Global Ecology and  Biogeography 18: 701- 710.

Erasmus, B.F.N., van Jaarsveld, A.S., Chown, S.L., Kshatriya, M and  Wessels, K.J. 2002. Vulnerability of South afrian animal taxa to climate change. Global Change Biology 8: 679-693.

Gienapp, P., Teplitsky, C., Alho, J.S., Mills, J.A. and  Merila, J. 2008. Climate change and evolution: disentangling environmental and genetic responses. Molecular Ecology 17: 167-178.

Grace, J., Berninger, F. and  Nagy, L. 2002. Impacts of climate change on the tree line. Annals of Botany 90: 537-544.

Hamer, M. and  Slotow, R. 2007. Conservation assessment of the invertebrates of the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Region. (Survey of the fauna, identification of patterns and processes affecting species richness and endemic richness, setting of conservation targets for the MDT project). Technical Report

Hamer, M. and  Slotow, R. 2009. A comparison and conservation assessment of the high-altitude grassland and forest-millipede (Diplopoda) fauna of the South African Drakensberg. Soil Organisms 81: 701-717.

Hannah, L, Midgley, G.F. and  Millar, D. 2002. Climate change-integrated conservation strategies. Global Ecology and  Biogeography 11: 485- 495.

Hannah, L, Midgley, G.F., Lovejoy, T., Bond, W.J., Bush, M., Lovett, J.C., Scott, D. and  Woodward, F.I. 2002. Conservation of biodiversity in a changing climate. Conservation Biology 16: 264-268.

Hannah, L, Midgley, G.F., Hughs, G and  Bomhard, B. 2005. The view from the Cape: Extinction risk, protected areas, and climate change. BioScience 55: 231-242.

Holt, R.D. 1990. The microevolutionary consequences of climate change. Trends in Ecology and  Evolution 5:311-315.

Huntley, B. 1991. How plants respond to climate change: migration rates, individualism and the consequences for the plant communities. Annals of Botany 67: 15-22.

Inouye, D.W. 2008. Effects of climate change on phenology, frost damage, and floral abundance of montane wildflowers. Ecology 89: 353- 362.

Kaspari, M. and  Majer, J.D., 2000. Using ants to monitor environmental change, in D. Agosti, J.D. Majer, L.E. Alonso and  T.R. Schultz (eds.), Ants: Standard methods for measuring and monitoring biodiversity, pp. 89–98, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC.

Kelly, A.E. and  Goulden, M.L. 2008. Rapid shifts in plant distribution with recent climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 105: 11823-11826.

Klanderud, K. and  Birks, H.J.B. 2003. Recent increases in species richness and shifts in altitudinal distributions of Norwegian mountain plants. The Holocene 13: 1-6.

Kohler, T. 2009. Mountains and climate change: a global concern. Pp68-70 In: Mountains and Climate change: From understanding to action, Eds T. Kohler and  D. Maselli, Geographica Bernesia, Bern, Switzerland.

Korner, C. 2004. Mountain biodiversity, its causes and function. Ambio Special Report 13: 11-17.

Mcgeoch, M., Sithole, H., Samways, M., Simaika, J., Pryke, J., Picker, M., Uys, C., Armstrong, A., Dippenaar-Schoeman, A., Engelbrecht, I., Braschler, B., Hamer, M. 2011. Conservation and monitoring of invertebrates in terrestrial protected areas. Koedoe – African Protected Area Conservation and Science, North America, 53: 1-13.

Messerli, B. and  Winiger, M. 1992. Climate, environmental change, and resources of the African Mountains from the Mediterranean to the equator. Mountain Research and  Development 12: 315-336.

Midgley, G.F., Hannah, L., Millar, D., Rutherford, M.C. and  Powrie, L.W. 2002. Assessing the vulnerability of species richness to anthropogenic climate change in a biodiversity hotspot. Global Ecology and  Biogeography 11: 445-451.

Midgley, G.F., Hannah, L., Millar, D., Thuiller, W. and  Booth, A. 2003. Developing regional and species-level assessments of climate change impacts on biodiversity in the Cape Floristic Region. Biological Conservation 112: 87-97.

Neu, U. 2009. Climate Change in Mountains. Pp6-9 In: Mountains and Climate change: From understanding to action, Ed.s T. Kohler and  D. Maselli, Geographica Bernesia, Bern, Switzerland.

Parolo, G. and  Rossi, G. 2008. Upward migration of vascular plants following a climate warming trend in the Alps. Basic and  Applied Ecology 9: 100-107.

Pauli, H., Gottfried, M. and  Grabherr, G. 1996. Effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems – upward shifting of alpine plants. World Resource Review 8: 382-390.

Perera, S.J., Ratnayake-Perera, D. and  Proches, S. 2011. Vertebrate distributions indicate a greater Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany region of endemism. South African Journal of Science 107(7/8), Art. #462, 15 pages. doi:10.4102/sajs. v107i7/8.462.

Spehn, E. M., Rudmann-Maurer, K. and  Korner, C. (Ed.s) 2010. Mountain biodiversity and global change. GMBA-DIVERSITAS, Basel,Switzerland.

SNC, 2011. The Second National Communication under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Eds G.F. Midgley, B. van Wilgen and  B. Mantlana. The Department of Environment. Sourced online at

Uys, C., Hamer, M., and  Slotow, R. 2009. Turnover in invertebrate species composition over different spatial scales in Afrotemperate forest in the Drakensberg, South Africa. African Journal of Ecology 47: 341-351.

Van Rensburg, B.J., Erasmus, B.F.N., van Jaarsveld, A.S., Gaston, K.J. and  Chown, S.L. 2004. Conservation during times of change: correlations between birds, climate and people in South Africa. South African Journal of Science 100: 266-272.

Viviroli, D., Weingartner, R. and  Messerli, B. 2003. Assessing the hydrological significance of the world’s mountains. Mountain Research and Development 23: 32-40.

Viviroli, D., Durr, H.H., Messerli, B., Meybeck, M. and  Weingartner, R. 2007. Mountains of the world, water towers for humanity: typology, mapping, and global significance. Water Resources Research 43, W07447, 13 PP.,doi:10.1029/2006WR005653

What about a “State of African Mountains Assessment (SOAMA)” report for African mountain ecosystems?


It is urgent that we have an indication of how well African mountain ecosystems are coping under current ‘global change’ pressures. These mountain ecosystems provide ecosystem services for the needs of current and future people in African mountains and their lowlands, and we are unsure of how at risk these essential ecosystems actually are, although changes are clear to see. Long term monitoring is needed, but short term research has been done in many localities, and findings need to be collated and interpreted to compile a ‘State Of’ report.

Farm worker housing on a farm in the Eastern Free State area near Ficksburg. Sandstone cliffs predominate this landscape and are being heavily invaded by many alien woody species like pines, eucalyptus, wattle and the shrub, Pyrocantha.

A State of African Mountains report would investigate current and past  ecological research and monitoring in African mountains to provide a baseline for a more streamlined indicator system that will contribute information for the development of a detailed ecosystem exploration for African mountains, particularly leading to a more systematic and comparative way of monitoring ecosystem health and the security of ecosystem services in African mountains.

African mountains and their ecosystems provide indispensable goods and services for communities living in and around them and for various downstream users.  Pressure from increasing human activities and climate change is leading to adverse changes in mountain ecosystems and urgent action is needed to develop responses that contribute to existing protective or restorative measures (which include protected areas, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Biosphere reserves, river basin management, forest management and community conservation measures, etc.). Areas outside of formal protection are of special concern and information on ecosystem change is needed to manage these areas sustainably. Information is particularly urgent at the ecosystem level, to show how ecosystems are changing and what pressures are causing the changes. Scientists and decision makers need to know how much of these ecosystems and their function remain, how likely they are to degrade further and what can be done to restore their function. 

However, to date there has been no quantitative and comparative assessment of the state of mountain ecosystems in African countries. This leads to numerous fundamental questions about the way forward for researchers and policy makers, as we cannot predict interactions across trophic levels, between ecosystems and the human communities they serve, nor do we understand the unique drivers of healthy ecosystems in these montane regions, often the primary source of freshwater for African countries. A critical review of all the currently disparate data is essential, to highlight both the gaps in our information and the existing strengths in data on montane ecosystems in Africa

Sandstone outcrops near the Golden Gate National Park, Eastern Free State province, South Africa. The ephemeral plant ‘islands’ on these outcrops need to be studied as little is known about how they maintain their diversity – or how they survive at all.

AfroMont Independent has done some of the preparatory work towards developing a regular assessment with collaborators to carry out assessments of African Mountain ecosystem health, and which may include collating existing data, and at a later stage, collecting empirical basic data, all to put together a regular report similar to the State of the Nile Basin report and other such ‘State Of’ reports.

Priority mountains include Africa’s ‘big ones’, as typified by the Drakensberg Escarpment (South Africa), and other major African mountain systems (Mt Kenya, Mt Kilimanjaro, the Eastern Arc Mountains, the Albertine Rift Mountains, Mt Cameroon and the Cameroonian volcanic line mountains and Mt Rwenzori, to name those in sub-Saharan Africa). Africa has many small mountains which are less charismatic and biodiverse and which are being neglected from a research perspective. A State of Small Mountains Assessment for Africa is also needed, selecting a range of small mountain types in different biomes in southern Africa, and then in Africa.

The Hoodia hype and health products, written by Sue Jean Taylor.

There is much international and commercial interest in products that promote weight loss, from teenagers to genuinely obese people who have tried everything. Of special interest are weight loss products that enable people to lose weight “without any effort”. 

In the market place there is both hype and unease with Hoodia products, particularly when news of the Unilever ‘toxicity’ findings began to circulate. Hoodia products are widely available in pharmacies in South Africa, yet in terms of product efficacy, many consumers of Hoodia products simply “believe the hype” that they will reduce their food intake and weight, rather than being critical of actual safety and efficacy testing. In terms of unease, there are issues with claims and how the product is marketed and the use of phrases like, “the bushmen have been using Hoodia for thousands of years” and also the linking of the word “Hoodia” directly with weight loss.

Other Hoodia products are reportedly manufactured illegally (illegally harvested without CITES authorisation), or contain no Hoodia material at all, or have insufficient amounts of the plant to be effective, but customers do not always know about this.  In a separate study, Unilever has also checked products on the shelves in the USA and found that many of them are adulterated, diluted or contain no genuine Hoodia material (either the plant  material or P57).

Many of the international websites advertising Hoodia products as a weight loss aid make use of the the fact/myth that the product has been “used by the San People for thousands of years” , a statement often made by manufacturers as a key product statement. A quick survey of websites confirms that good marketing use is being made to maintain a general believe in ‘traditional’ remedies being safe. A typical marketing statements will say “pure Kalahari Hoodia gordonii” has been used “by the San for thousands of years”. It may not always be a good idea to rely on the fact that a product has been used for a long time by a particular community as our modern lifestyles differ markedly from San traditional lifestyles.

Hoodia product marketed with ‘boosting’ words like Supreme, Plus, Natural Benefits and invoking the well-worn image of “the San Bushmen’. Image sourced online.

“Natural” products are also of global interest in that many consumers perceive these to be healthier to use than chemical products.


The chronology of the commercial development of Hoodia gordonii as a health product, written by Sue Jean Taylor (PhD).

The properties of Hoodia as a “non-food” were investigated by the CSIR’s  Division of Food Science and Technology in the 1960’s, but drew no interest as the research programme focused on food from the wild and the ethnobotany of the Kalahari San.  From 1983 – 1986, molecular structures of chemicals in  Hoodia were elucidated, a steroidal glycoside identified. The CSIR’s scientists, working with Phytopharm, isolated what they believed to be an active ingredient in Hoodia gordonii, a steroidal glycoside, which they named P57. After obtaining a patent in 1995, the CSIR licensed P57 to Phytopharm.

However, as obesity and dieting began to take more prominence as a global and serious health condition in the 1980’s and onward, interest in P57 began to increase.

During 1991 – 1996 Mr Vinesh Maharaj the carried out a “secret” PhD to elucidate the chemical structure of P57 and found that it was possible to synthesise the compound, but only through 26 complex steps. At this point, the compound was patented. The P57 patent details:- Van Heerden FR, Vleggaar R, Horak RM, Learmonth RA, Maharaj V, Whittal RD. “Pharmaceutical compositions having appetite suppression activity.” (1986).

During this time, methods of grow the plant in vitro were also investigated, but were dropped as the outside of the plant had too many microbial contaminants.  This meant that all Hoodia plants had to be grown from seed or cuttings in an outdoor setting.

The patent was then licensed to Phytopharm UK, with Pfizer as a partner, and this group and the CSIR began to carry out greenhouse and field trials to determine the best way to grow the plant, including fertilizer and herbicide regimes.  This work also involved investigations into how to best harvest and prepare seeds, and how to transplant the seedlings. The initial seed germination work was done by Mr Ralph Peckover in greenhouses in Pretoria and then in field plantings in the Upington area.

Pfizer also conducted field trials on selected Hawaiian islands where there was a suitable low rainfall.  Pfizer also did feeding trials with rats, dogs, and human subjects and all seemed OK at that stage. Subsequently Pfizer stated that their preferred manufacturing model was to work with the pure chemical, not with plants and products that had to be extracted from plants. So Pfizer returned the P57 patent to Phytopharm.

Phytopharm put the product and patent out on tender again, and was taken up by Unilever.  Unilever paid R3 million for the rights to carry out basic research. They set up test sites in the northern Cape and got  contract farmers to grow Hoodia between 2006 and 2008..

The P57 compound is present in Hoodia gordonii and Hoodia pilifera, as well as Hoodia krausii, although Hoodia gordonii had the compound in the highest quantities.  These plant species are all very susceptible to fungi and water-logging and can only be grown where there is 250 mm or less rainfall per year, and the plant does best when temperatures are between 35 – 56 deg C.  Under these temperatures, irrigation is needed to get the seedlings established. They need to be watered (drip or overhead irrigation) up to three times a day to get going. Weeds also proliferate under these conditions.  The plants are very susceptible, both as small plants and as adult plants, to salt accumulation in the soil and so the quality of irrigation water has to be good.

Both the seedlings and adult plants are susceptible to many insect pests, as are most plants grown in a monoculture situation as Hoodia gordonii is. There is a range of weavils and stinkbugs that attack the seed pods, reducing seed yield, as well as a range of mealy bugs and thrips that would damage the plant so that fungi and bacteria gained a hold and destroy the plants.

During handling and transplanting, the small plantlets with their spines make holes in each other, which also quickly become infected by fungi and bacterial rot. Although the seed germinate readily and the plants is easy to grow in greenhouse condition, the cultivation of this plant on an agricultural scale in arid areas is very challenging.

After some of the basic horticultural methods were worked out, Phytopharm looked for agricultural partners and identified Carstens Farms/Boerdery, a big farming enterprise in the Upington area with many farms along the orange river.  Test sites were set up in 1998, and irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide regimes were tested.  A minimum regime of fertilizers and pesticides was sought to try and keep the cultivated material as “organic’ as possible for international markets.

Hoodia plantations in the Northern Cape, South Africa.

In terms of cultivation, drought and stress increased the amount of P57 in the plants. 

When plants were being field trialed in the Upington area, different ways of harvesting the plants were also investigated, e.g. whether it was better to pull p the whole plant or selectively cut off branches and wait for regrowth, noting that the plant reacted very well to being ‘pruned’, and all wounds dried and re-sprouted. This was selected as the most viable approach to harvesting the field-grown Hoodia material.  As establishing new orchards of the plant from seed is very time consuming, with a high failure rate, it was obviously is better to leave the plants in situ and just remove branches, and allow the plant to re-sprout.

Under irrigation, the orchards of Hoodia plants have to be weeded, as grasses grew prolifically, smothering the plants.  This was all very labour intensive, and under very harsh conditions.  Day time temperatures in the Upington area can get up to 56 deg Centigrade, with soil temperatures being in the high sixties (Centigrade).  Also, in terms of weeding and harvesting, the spiny nature of  Hoodia makes for unpleasant work conditions.

Another complication is accidental genetic contamination by pollen from other non-P57 containing, yet closely related Hoodia species.  If the taxonomic identification of source material is not rigorous, cross hybridisation could result in plants that only produced marginal amounts of P57.

Also, the transplanting of the small Hoodia plantlets (about a finger-size) was also very labour intensive.  Small seedlings were grown in hothouses and then transplanted into the field.  Small shade structures had to be placed over each small plant to allow the plant to become established. If the plants were not covered up in the initial weeks, they simply cooked in the heat.  The transplanting of these plants into fields adding up to farms of 100 hectares was very labour intensive and unpleasant, and would no doubt add to the costs.

All in all, it would seem that the agronomy of Hoodia is very difficult and labour intensive, under severe environmental conditions (heat).  The planting out of individual sees, which are only centimeters high, resulted in heavy losses, and is thus problematic. Other ways of planting out the seedlings would have been needed, if the project had continued.

However, once established , the stands of Hoodia grow incredibly well.  It is a spectacular sight  to see tens of hectares of very arid landscape planted out with Hoodia, the huge pink flowers looking like satellite dishes. Apparently the smell of these flowering plantations “is not very bad,” although the plants do rely on flies for pollination in the wild and they  smell like carrion.

The Northern Cape Development Agency was approached for a funding partnership between themselves and Unilever to establish a drying plant in Upington, and a processing plant in Paarl, both of which were exciting developments for regions that need new enterprise and economic development.  These projects have now collapsed, once Unilever announced its ‘toxicity’ findings.

Unilever paid out contract farmers, according to clauses in their contracts so the participating farmers will not lose out financially, except in their expectations to be part of a bigger industry. Although Unilever reported on P57 toxicity, there may be other reasons why the project was terminated, like the high cost of producing Hoodia in the area areas where cultivation is labour intensive and requires extensive irrigation infrastructure.

This development was also devastating to Northern Cape, as they also had expectations surrounding job creation and economic development linked to the Upington drying plant and be sole suppliers of this unique desert product. The patent reverted to Phytopoharm.

The Phytopharm Chairman,  Alistair Taylor, commented at the time that over the years, Phytopharm had generated a considerable body of pre-clinical and clinical data on Hoodia and while Hoodia was not suited for a Unilever branded food and beverage product, Phytopharm committed itself to continue exploring alternative product formats for the commercialisation of Hoodia[1]

[1]  Phytopharm “Preliminary Results for the period ended 30th September 2008”

The interest in the commercial development of a new South African crop

It has taken 30 years for the CSIR to isolate the specific appetite suppressing ingredient in Hoodia gordonii, a succulent found in the arid areas of South Africa and Namibia. After the basic chemical work was undertaken by the CSIR in the 1990’s and P57 patented,  the patent for the  compound was licensed to the British pharmaceutical company, Phytopharm in 1997. As the compound cannot be synthesized, it had to be isolated from living plants, and in great quantities.

The plant was successfully grown as a crop in orchards along the Orange River, where some irrigation was needed. The plant proved very diverse in cultivation, with many different flower colours, for example. This may have also been a sign that individual plants would have more or less P57, and that the yield of this compound would not be uniform without further plant breeding to optimize this.

Hoodia products available online. Online source of image.

The active ingredient known as P57 has been patented by the CSIR, with the patent covering six species: H. currorii, H. gordonii, H. lugardii, H. (Trichocaulon) piliferum, and H. (Trichocaulon) officinale. However, the natural product cannot be patented entirely. There is therefore no copyright infringement by manufacturing and selling any natural products derived from H. gordonii or other species that should prove to contain P57, even though such products would also naturally contain P57.  Medications that are reputed to contain Hoodia material are currently sold widely, particularly in the USA and arid countries like Mexico[1] (see below).

 Phytopharm  undertook a clinical study that showed obese people who took P57 (extracted from Hoodia gordonii) ate 1000 calories fewer per day with no adverse side effects.   P57 was  launched as a diet drug, and Pfizer purchased the worldwide marketing rights from Phytopharm for a reported $32 million to develop and market P57 based diet pills. Pfizer originally paid Phytopharm for the rights to market a P57 based diet pill, but after a few year of unsuccessful attempts to make P57 synthetically, Pfizer pulled out of the deal. Apparently P57 is impossible to synthesis artificially, a requirement for testing for Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval.  If a large amount of P57 could not be created inexpensively in the lab, Pfizer was not interested.

While Phytopharm was discouraged by the Pfizer decision, they knew that Hoodia gordonii was ‘too powerful an appetite suppressant’ to give up trying to bring it to the market. In December 2004, Phytopharm announced that Unilever had entered a deal to market Hoodia gordonii in its diet food product line. Therefore, rather than producing diet drugs, it looks like Phytopharm and Unilever will product diet supplements and diet foods with hoodia. As we now know, a small human subjects trial with P57 seemed to show that P57 was not effective as previously thought, and Unilevel stopped its Hoodia/P57 project and all further investment.

The current status is that Phytopharm owns the patent on the P57 molecule, but does not own a patent on the Hoodia gordonii plant, as living, unmodified biological species cannot be patent.  The interest in Hoodia “diet” properties remains huge, as a scan of internet Hoodia product offerings reveals.  There are many companies around the world offering diet preparations containing Hoodia, but use careful wording on the labels so as not to infringe the CSIR/Phytopharm patents. They cannot use the word “P57” for instance.

Unfortunately, the use of Hoodia itself to manufacture weight loss products for the diet markets is not regulated by the patent and also does not draw royalties payable to Phytopharm or the San people. This whole research investment, commercialisation and benefits of Hoodia has slipped away from South Africa and the San people.

In South Africa, Hoodia products are registered under food  laws as a foodstuff.

[1] 2005

The dramatic story of the commercial development of Hoodia

It is indeed cinematic that after so much expensive and long term research that has been focused on Hoodia, so many case studies, so much controversy about royalties, so much investment by farmers, that the commercial development of P51 failed. P57 is the active ingredient in Hoodia, attributed to the appetite suppressing potential of the plant. Again, it does seem unbelievable that with so many informal Hoodia ‘diet’ products already on the market, both locally and internationally, serving the dieting market, that the pure compound P57 derived from Hoodia gordonii  that this plant (and P57) should eventually fail to meet Unilever’s safety and efficacy standards, resulting in this UK company announcing in November 2008 that it was dropping Hoodia entirely.  One of the challenges in the commercialization of P57 is that the complex organic molecule could not be synthesized and had to be isolated from hoodia – vast quantities of Hoodia. Plantations of Hoodia gordonii were established on the banks of the Orange River, a very frustrating challenge as any excess water (for instance, trying to irrigate small Hoodia seedlings) resulted in ferocious fungal rots. This plant was just not used to en mass cultivation.

The Hoodia gordonii plant. Online source of image..

This failed cultivation and product development is a calamity for South Africa at a time when the country needs agricultural diversification and investment, when towns and cities in the more arid and marginal areas need international investment and new farming crops.  In the business arena, the failure to commercialize P57 for the obesity pharmaceutical market indicates the extreme risk that farmers and big multinational companies take when dealing with a new plant species and developing a new plant product, and that there are no guarantees for success.

Potential subsequent phases of the Hoodia story.

Now that Unilever has withdrawn its interest in the P57 patent, the patent situation reverts back to Phytopharm, which is a company too small to develop products by itself, and so once again, they will need to find a commercial partner.

The problem for Phytopharm and Unilever remains, in that P57 cannot be synthesized in the laboratory and relies on fresh cultivated Hoodia, will remain that unless they have partnerships with farmers in arid areas (could be South Africa, or other arid countries like India, parts of the USA, China). They will not be able to obtain enough material to develop and produce a product line.  Perhaps there is still hope for South African and Namibian Hoodia growers for future partnerships with a big international pharmaceutical entity.

Any subsequent phases of the South African Hoodia commercialisation story should include a fully investigation of the medical “toxicity” claims of Unilever, and perhaps a retesting of this material on human subjects. One of the issues in the effectiveness of Hoodia as an appetite suppressor is the ‘mouth feel’ of fresh raw Hoodia. It literally dried up your mouth and teeth and you don’t feel thirsty or hungry until you mouth recovered! This effect cannot be reproduced in a capsule containing P57 powder.

So, all in all, a failed product for the medical treatment of obesity, but a success for the informal alternate medicines markets where people ‘believe’ in natural products based on advertising ‘hype’.

Obesity – a growing global problem and an ‘enormous’ market opportunity, written by Sue Jean Taylor.

The global obesity product market is worth about a staggering $6 billion annually and is expected to grow substantially along with the global obesity epidemic. There is an ongoing search by international pharmaceutical companies for products that control the appetite and yet have no side effects. The P57 active compounds from Hoodia gordonii seemed to be the perfect molecule to supply this market need. Yet after decades of research, the Hoodia discovery and product process seems set to unravel, based on the decision of the current patent licensee, Unilever, to withdraw from Hoodia research and development, stating that the plant has toxic effects.

Obesity is developing into a serious global epidemic in which our lifestyles are implicated, most notably access to fast foods and sugar and a decrease in exercising. There are currently more than one billion overweight adults worldwide with the fast food and prepared food industries bearing the brunt of the blame (refs) and even in South Africa, obesity has reached significant levels (refs refs).  There is strong evidence of increased health risks associated with obesity for life threatening diseases like such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain types of cancer. The key to success in the anti-obesity prescription drug market is to develop drugs that will also improve these obesity-associated risk factors, assist in the maintenance of weight loss, and be safe for long-term treatment.

Unfortunately the treatment of obesity still remains an unmet medical need and therefore represents a huge market opportunity for safe and efficacious drugs for treating obesity. The Anti-Obesity Prescription Drug Market grew by 80.6 percent between 1998 and 1999, from $187.5 million to $338.6 million in revenues. Steady growth is expected to continue over the forecast period. This is the market into which the patented P57 compound was aimed.

Market research studies have been done to investigate trends in the obesity products market, and show that revenues in this industry totaled $735 Million in 2002 and is projected to reach $2.00 billion by 2009, and $6 billion by 2011.  Also, the market for low fat foods and drinks is also expected to grow (refs).

Increased risks of obesity are everywhere in society. Online source of image.

Current anti-obesity drugs are only palliative, i.e. they treat the symptoms, but for the future treatment of obesity, functional genomics research programs have yielded valuable information about genes, disease pathways and drug targets.  Market participants are focusing R&D efforts on genomics studies that will identify genes implicated in obesity. These genes can then serve as potential targets for drug development. One significant step has been the elucidation of the leptin signaling pathway which controls appetite via the hypothalamus. Manufacturers are also directing their energies to characterizing gene pathways involved in lipid biosynthesis and energy homeostasis.

The global problem of obesity is a problem of too much easily available high energy food

The global problem of obesity cannot be met solely by dieting products and anti-obesity prescription drugs alone and it is imperative that the food industry change many of their products and marketing tactics to demonstrate that they are sincere in not being part of the problem, but part of the solution. Consumer education is equally important.

Obesity is also about food choices and information. Online image.

The global industry of dieting and weight management is also huge and developing fast, and is often controversial because of its link to fashion trends. As well as the development of new products, consumer awareness of nutrition has grown in recent years, and value and volume sales of diet foods and drinks have risen over the past five years.

The diet-related food and drink market is expected to grow by 3.1% in Europe and 3.6% in the US between 2006 and 2012. With dieting already an integral part of Western eating habits, the pharmaceutical and diet product companies aim to look for further growth opportunities, including new product development in key markets such as the UK, Europe, the US and Asia-Pacific. Many Hoodia products fall into the category of dieting and weight management products, and to do this, they don’t invoke the P57 patent as the patent doesn’t cover Hoodia and Hoodia material in themselves.

Hoodia and treating obesity – a growing global product market and a product that didn’t succeed.

The South African arid area succulent plant, Hoodia gordonii, was found to contain a unique appetite suppressing chemical called P51. The plant species had been used by local San people as a survival food, appetite suppressant and source of moisture, and this was the lead that led to the CSIR’s research.P51 was patented in South Africa in 1988 by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1988 and there has been a long struggle to develop P51 as a medical product for obesity. 

There have been several attempts to achieve full commercial development of P51 as a pharmaceutical product. However, in 2008, Phytopharm, the patent holder at that time, took a decision to withdraw from the commercialization of this plant, based on the so-called ‘toxicity’ of the product according to a small clinical trial. The failed commercialization of this compound represents a dramatic failed opportunity to commercialize a novel plant species and for a biodiversity-rich country like South Africa to capitalize on its own biodiversity and create businesses from this unique plant. However, Hoodia tablets, teas and dried Hoodia products are still available online, attesting to the consumer ‘belief’ in this product and its online hype. These products accrue no royalties to South Africa because the CSIR patent only covers P51.

The commercial development of Hoodia has been a challenge because of the number of issues that it has encompassed, from the initial food-related research at the CSIR, to the chemistry and patenting of P57, to access and benefit sharing concerns and then breakthroughs with the San people, to illegal harvesting issues and registration of the plant as a CITES II plant, to its use as a dieting aid and all the marketing hype associated with this. The safety and efficacy testing to comply with FDA regulations in the USA is another component being handled by Phytopharm.

At the time the original research was carried out by the CSIR Division of Food Science and Technology, there was not much interest in the plant in a pharmaceutical sense. In more recent times, however, obesity has emerged as a growing global health problem, and  the registration of a drug that had appetite suppressing properties with no side effects would be guaranteed  economic success.

African cities at sea-level – Beira as a vulnerable coastal city

Could mass tree planting create flood resilience in this coastal city?

Sourced image online: The informal areas of Beira, a coastal city of Mozambique after the passage of Cyclone Idai. This city is located on a vast coastal plain. There would literally be little higher ground if the city had to be relocated.
Image sourced online. The informal areas of Beira aftrer the passage of Cyclone Idai. These areas will need to be rehabilitated for human habitation – need to ‘build back better’ in preparation for the next cyclone that comes.

Beira is the capital and largest city of Sofala Province, in Mozambique, and is where the Pungwe River meets the Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel, in the central region of Mozambique. The Mozambique Channel is prone to hurricanes, but with climate change, it is highly likely that these events could become more frequent and more damaging. Around the city of Beira, also at sea-level, the residential and port areas were inundated with river flood waters and storm surges  flowing in from the sea, and were largely destroyed. Mangroves could be replanted, and it is well known that replanting mangrove areas is a good disaster management initiative. In Beira, the coastal mangrove areas have largely been removed, as they have been in many other parts of the world. Had they remained in place, they would have provided a first level of defence against coastal surges. They can be replanted.

In the case of Mozambique’s flat coastal plain, a project to plant trees and undertaken a landscape-scale flood intervention, would be designed with stakeholders to control flood waters and storm surges, as well as create other social benefits. Most of eastern Mozambique is a flat coastal plain at the same elevation as sea level, and is highly vulnerable to flooding, whether from the sea or from river flood waters. Residents of this area are mostly subsistence farmers on small plots of land, and who have no insurance or safety nets, other than keeping some of their see for next season’s planting. Cyclone Idai robbed them of their crops, their planting seed, their livestock and their homes. Clearly, a severe situation, and one which will become a regular occurrence.

It might be time to conduct a feasibility study for a ‘Great Strong Wall of Trees for Beira’, essentially developing a well-thought out mass tree planting programme, designed for flood and storm surge disaster management in the landscape around Beira. This scheme could be modeled on the Great Green Wall for Africa, and other urban tree planting schemes, in the way the project is phased and monitored. Important elements to consider would be how such project is researched, set up, funded and managed. Also, the tree species component of impacted catchments needs to be cataloged for replanting. The easiest way to get forests to regenerate is to keep goats out of areas with fencing. The seed banks in the soil can then germinate and grow, and in this way the ‘trees plant themselves’.

Some issues to consider are whether inland tree plantings can help to stabilise inland river banks, or even help to raise river banks over time to contain flood waters.  Such a project would need to be established in collaboration with forestry experts and other organisations, professionals and taking note of lessons learned by other coastal cities that are engaging with remedial tree planting at scale. Expect benefits in 20 years time, if such a project started right now! In other words, this is no quick fix.