Jennifer Thomson


Jennifer Thomson's main work, together with Suhail Rafudeeen and Jill Farrant, is to develop transgenic maize tolerant to drought and other abiotic stresses. The source of their genes is the 'resurrection plant' Xerophyta viscosa, an extremophile that can tolerate up to 95% dehydration.


The 'resurrection plant' Xerophyta viscosa

She also works, together with Prof. Ed Rybicki and Dr Dionne Shepherd, on the development of maize resistant to the African endemic geminivirus, Maize streak virus.

She helped draft South Africa 's National Biotechnology Strategy and was appointed by the Minister of Science and Technology to the National Advisory Council on Innovation. She is the co-founder of SA WISE (SA Women in Science and Engineering) .

Internationally she is on the board of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. She is a frequently invited speaker at conferences, including the World Economic Forum. During 2004 she won the coveted L'Oréal/Unesco award for women in science. The award, which is worth US$100 000(about R650 000), was given for her research into the resistance shown by transgenic plants to viral infections, drought and other risks.

The fact that Jennifer has been given the L'Oréal/Unesco award shows that many top scientists abroad share the view that problems arising from genetic modification can be scientifically contained.

Professor Thomson in the media: Fair Lady (November 2013); Tatler (October 2013)

XVSAP1 transgenic Arabidopsis, after heat treatment at 42 degrees

XVSAP1 transgenic tobacco showing resistance to water stress. The non-transgenic plants are almost completely dead.

MSV-Resistance Trials
GMOs: Facts and Fictions
  Fiction Fact
Environmental impacts GM crops create superweeds
  • The use of herbicides for decades has not resulted in superweeds.
  • Herbicide resistant crops are just another way herbicides can be used.
  • Herbicide rotation has been used for decades to prevent build-up of resistance
GM crops will destroy biodiversity
  • GM crops are much easier to breed into different crop varieties as they only have one or a few linked genes added. Thus GM crops can increase crop biodiversity.
  • Fewer insecticides are used leading to increased insect biodiversity.
Food safety GM foods are unsafe to eat
  • No food in the history of humankind has ever been subjected to such rigorous safety tests as foods derived from GM crops.
  • 2004: Food and Agricultural Organization “no deleterious effects from consumption of foods derived from GM crops discovered anywhere in the world”.
  • 2010: EU Commission Directorate for Research “no new risks to human health or the environment from any GMO crops commercialized so far”.
Market issues GM crops are just a ploy of the multinationals to make more money
  • Farmers are savvy people. They will not buy seeds if they don’t give them a profit. No-one is forcing farmers to buy seed from any given company.
  • In India 30 companies have the Bt gene in their varieties.
Farmers who plant GM crops have to buy seed every year
  • Since the advent of hybrid crops/seeds in the mid-1990s farmers who have chosen to plant such hybrids have had to buy seed every year. That was long before GM crops were even dreamt of.
  • Farmers can choose not to buy hybrid seed but plant open-pollinated varieties, or land races. These have lower yields but farmer can plant their own seed. These choices are readily available from seed companies.
GM crops cannot help to feed the poor
  • They could if they were allowed to be introduced. The developed world has imposed such strict regulations, which have to be followed by the developing world, that existing GM crops as well as new ones in the pipeline with improved nutritional content, and resistance to drought and disease, are extremely difficult and expensive to introduce.
GM crops won’t put more money into the pockets of small holder farmers
  • Currently in 29 countries where GM crops are allowed, approximately 90% are planted by small holder farmers. Ask them why they buy GM seeds.
  • In 2009 87% of the national Indian cotton crop was planted by small holder farmers using GM seed.
  • In China the equivalent figure was 68%.
  • Small holder farmers are the quintessential organic farmers as they cannot afford herbicides and insecticides. GM crops means that they can improve their yield with seed alone, although addition of fertilizers will help.
Genes can flow from GM crops and ‘pollute’ other crops
  • Gene flow takes place between all crops, GM or non-GM. Conventional hybrid crops can just as readily ‘pollute’ local varieties.