A day in the life of a biotechnologist

Biotechnology has never tasted this good!

When you first meet Dr Garth Cambray, all of your preconceived notions of what a biotechnologist looks like and what a biotechnologist does are, quite frankly, shattered. He is dressed for work in jeans and a t-shirt and meets me carrying not a pipette, nor a beaker containing some interesting experiment. There is not even a test-tube in sight. Instead, he is balancing a rather large piece of wood in one hand and a toolbox in the other. He looks apologetic and says that he just needs to check that the company saw is working before we can go ahead with the interview.

I follow dutifully and watch as one of the world's few leading experts in mead fermentation technology tightens a screw on the Baker saw before passing a log with surprising rapidity and ease through a machine that one would not under many circumstances expect to see in a laboratory. Throughout the day as I follow, photograph, watch, and learn. I am surprised and even impressed to meet a biotechnologist with quite so many varied skills.

Garth passes a log through the saw.

Let's start off with the wood. Garth explains that the company has its own sawmill which processes invasive wood (the conservationist in him emerges) and once cut into planks, use it to make beehives. The company manages several hundred beehives on the property and also in the areas surrounding Grahamstown. This city is also home to Rhodes University where Cambray obtained his PhD in biotechnology this year.

Bees are vital to the success of the company, Makana Meadery, which he founded in 2000 with longtime friend and business partner, Mr Vuyani Ntantiso and former Rhodes academic Dr Winston Leukes. Honey collected from the beehives is a vital ingredient in producing mead (also known as honeywine), the company's flagship product. It was a love of bees, Cambray explains, that initially led to his PhD research in producing mead. He was fascinated by what he explains is arguably the world's oldest biotechnology, dating back to the time of the KhoiSan people.

As we walk over to one of the apiary sites (a grouping of between six and eight hives) he explains that the knowledge of mead production has lived on through the centuries and now forms an important part of traditional Xhosa rites and culture. Garth says that his interest in biotechnology was sparked when he learnt of this ancient tradition through friends who were themselves traditional producers of the mead. As he carefully doses the entrance to the beehive with smoke (smoke calms the bees), he further tells how under his friends' tutelage he embarked on an ambitious research project working with Dr Winston Leukes (supervisor of his PhD) to both understand and transform the traditional technology.

Garth pacifies the bees using a beekeeper's friend, a smoker.

Garth opens the beehive and carefully holds a frame of honeycomb while worker bees, lulled by the smoke, carry on with the business of producing honey and caring for the young brood. He examines several beehives for productivity and any signs of illness, which he says can spread rapidly through the hives.

Garth holds up a frame which the beehive colony has dedicated to
laying worker eggs.

The honey is extracted from the frame using a honey extractor Garth designed and built himself. He refers to himself as somewhat of a "bush mechanic", which I take means someone with a knack for designing crafty, low cost solutions to a particular problem.

Garth's home-made honey extractor.

Inside the factory Garth examines the pilot bioreactor designed during his research. It is known as a tower fermentor and differs markedly from the traditional batch reactor system where the ingredients for making mead are simply placed in a bucket and allowed to ferment. Instead, with the tower fermentor, mead is constantly being produced once the honey is fermented to alcohol. Garth says that this took several years of careful research to perfect. A mixture of honey and water is pumped in through the bottom of the reactor and passes through a thick layer or rather, a bed, of plant roots at the bottom of the tower. The roots are from the succulent known locally as imoela and attached to its roots is the yeast, the magic component responsible for fermenting the sugars in the honey into alcohol.

Garth examines the flow rate in the pilot reactor.

Once the honey solution has passed through the imoela, the fermented product pumps through the top of the tower and is collected into settling tanks where fermentation continues.

In biotechnology, pilot scale reactors are designed and then trouble shot before embarking on a process known as "scale up" where the reactor size is scaled up to maximize on production. Scaling up is often one of the trickiest parts in the process. I follow Garth as he inspects the fermentation level through a glass viewer in the stainless steel scale up version of the pilot reactor he designed during his PhD studies. This is an impressive 14 metre high tower fermentor which produces up to 330 litres of mead per day. Garth says that the process patented by Makana Meadery can be used for fermenting other types of sugars into alcohol as well, such as grapes to make wine and even apples to make cider and it does so a lot faster and a lot more economically than the normal batch systems currently widely used.

Garth examines the fermentation process in the two story high tower

The mead is allowed to mature in large maturation tanks for a period of three months before being filtered and bottled. Garth has started experimenting with maturing mead in oak barrels, which he tests daily. No fancy sensors here yet, just the good old fashioned taste and smell test. Garth explains that Dr Brendan Wilhelmi and his student Brian Field at Rhodes University are currently identifying the flavour compounds in the mead and developing technology that will be used to monitor the appearance of these compounds as the mead matures. Taste is of course paramount in developing any food or beverage biotechnology process.

Monitoring mead maturation in the oak barrels is a daily task and part
of continuing research in maturation.

When it's time to prepare a large order it's all hands on deck. Here Garth helps Sindiswa (the accountant) and Eve (the general manager) with labeling of the mead products which run under the catchy and descriptive label of Honey Sun.

Garth lends a hand with labeling bottles as Sindiswa and Eve
prepare a mead order.

Throughout the day his phone rings constantly, and he vanishes to his office periodically to check and answer email while I sample some of the tasty products Eve and Sindiswa tempt me with. These now include a gourmet food range prepared with one of the latest fruits of the company's research, mead vinegar.

Eve and Sindiswa conduct an inventory of the products in the store.

Chatting to Vuyani (one of the three company directors) who proudly poses with a bottle of the mead outside the company's front door, one gets the sense that the company is very much goal orientated and driven to achieving and reaching new targets through continuous research and development. Vuyani explains that one of the major goals of the company is to create jobs, nowhere in South Africa more so of a necessity than in the Eastern Cape Province. On the very next day after my visit Vuyani and Garth did just that through biotechnology skills transfer to otherwise unemployed people.

Vuyani Ntantiso and Garth Cambray (company directors) are often in
the media spotlight and my being there was in fact a part of their
daily routine.

Before day's end, Garth cannot resist one last look at an experiment involving feeding one of the beehives orange juice. We sample the resulting honey which is delicately fragranced with orange zest.

Garth samples honey from one of the experimental beehives.

And so I leave with a sweet taste in my mouth, a bottle of mead under my arm and a promise to return to sample some of that orange mead, the product of good sound biotechnology, creative minds, and a start up biotechnology company striving to make a difference in South Africa.

P.S. My casual queries to staff revealed what Garth does at the end of a long day - it's either fishing (for alien fish), cooking (sushi is apparently a hot favourite if the fishing was successful), walking his dogs (the steeper the mountain the better), mountain biking, or letting his creative juices flow by writing popular science stories. Though devoted to his millions of bees (even when they sting) and to his dogs and, though enamoured he is of science, it would appear that the apple of this biotechnologist's eye is a rather large, (20kg), fierce looking wild cat called Gaphoof (also known as Pootskie), a caracal he and his partner rescued and hand-reared since she was but eight days old. The proof is in the picture, courtesy of his family.