As Africa works towards developing its own vaccine, one of the techniques that it needs to achieve this is crystallography, according to science experts. Crystallography is the basis of many sciences which can be widely applied to good effect in areas as economy, health systems, education and infrastructure. In strict scientific terms, crystallography is the science that works out the arrangement of the atoms in almost any solid in order to understand its behaviour – from diamonds and salt crystals to the double helix structure of DNA.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the science can be deployed to help develop effective vaccines for SARS-CoV-2. One of the chief advocates of this strategic branch of science is Professor Delia Haynes, who has just been elected the first president of the newly established African Crystallographic Association (AfCA.
A chemist at Stellenbosch University’s department of chemistry and polymer science, Professor Haynes is excited about the establishment of such an entity as Africa is the only continent without it. AfCA was officially launched at the recent online Pan-African Conference on Crystallography (ePCCr), at a session graced by representatives from the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr), UNESCO, the International Science Council and the African Academy of Science.
Professor Haynes says AfCA came about as a result of hard work put in by a group of dedicated scientists and several international and African science bodies to develop the field of crystallography in Africa. Since 1999, these efforts have culminated in student support, unique training opportunities known as OpenLabs, and working together with suppliers to install equipment.
Due to the lack of analytical facilities in most African countries, however, crystallography is not well developed on the continent, says Professor Haynes. Many countries do not have even one diffractometer, the instrument used to carry out crystallographic studies. Africa is also the only continent in the world, excluding Antarctica, without a synchrotron light source, a powerful tool in crystallographic research, she observed.
She says AfCA’s main priority is to contribute towards the advancement of science in Africa via crystallography in all its aspects, and to promote co-operation amongst African crystallographers. The association will, inter alia, create a database of African crystallographers and ensure their registration in the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) World Directory of Crystallographers (WDC).
According to Professor Haynes, other objectives of the outfit include:
- the establishment of national associations of crystallography in African countries
- the organisation of the PCCr conference every two years
- training activities and a public awareness and
- engagement program.
In addition, AfCA will also work towards the establishment of equipment firstly in at least one country in each of the five regions of the continent: Central Africa, West Africa, North Africa, Southern Africa and East Africa. This will encourage research co-operation and require researchers to travel across borders, says Professor Haynes.
She says ease of travel between African countries has been a major obstacle to research collaboration on the continent, adding that AfCA will lobby for a scientific visa to ensure the mobility of researchers between African countries. “Indeed, crystallography is essential for the development and improvement of almost all materials and medicines and forms the backbone of a wide range of industries. We would like crystallography to be a vehicle for the sustainable development of Africa’s economy and society,” says Professor Haynes.
Today, she says, crystallography provides important observational and mechanistic insights for a range of scientific disciplines, such as biomedical research, energy, food and water supply, earth sciences, geophysics and forensic science.