National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Dr Daniel W Hart

For a contribution which attempts to utilise concepts from evolutionary biology to address biological questions of health, biological, social and economic relevance to humans which focuses on using knowledge of evolutionary biology of mammals to improve treatments of human medical conditions and to predict future consequences of climate change.

When Dr Daniel Hart first entered university, he was only there to play sport. Gradually though, he was drawn further and further into biological research by excellent mentors, who helped him hone his knack for finding patterns where others miss them.

“I was a brutish rugby player, walking around with no shoes,” he says. “But every single time I spoke to a senior academic it always piqued my fancy. When I met Prof Nigel Bennet it just went from zero to 100%, and I’ve been able to work and collaborate with some of the top people in the world.”

Bennet is a world-renowned zoologist based at the University of Pretoria, and Hart is now a senior research fellow in Bennet’s African mole rat research lab.

Hart studies how mole rats evolved abilities that humans might call super-powers. These abilities include slower ageing, surviving in low oxygen conditions, preventing pregnancy in a natural way, and being insensitive to pain.

“Discovering patterns where there shouldn’t be a pattern is my ‘wow’ moment,” says Hart. 

For example, a few years ago when he was catching mole rats for colleagues in Germany, he kept being bitten by ants sharing the underground burrows. The bites were rather painful, so he wondered why the mole rats appeared unaffected. 

Upon further research he realised that the ants inject formic acid when they bite, which attacks the nervous system of mammals. 

After further testing on the mole rats, Hart and his colleagues discovered that these creatures had evolved unique genes to bypass the pain response. 

That research led to Hart’s first publication in one of the top international journals, Science, in 2019. More publications in Science and Nature journals are expected soon on various mole-rat ‘super-powers’.

He says that discovering the underlying biological mechanisms that drive such unique abilities and behaviours could help inform how humans adapt to climate change and treat diseases like cancer.

Hart has already had several of these ‘eureka moments’ that all scientists dream of, despite being only at the start of what promises to be an impactful career.

“I’m not a very artistic person, but … I find it beautiful to look for patterns and the processes that appear in nature. What drives me and what keeps me up at night is being able to put together pieces of information that seem to be unrelated, but actually form this complex web of what keeps an animal going and keeps the ecosystem going,” says Hart.

Dr Daniel Hart won the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher for an outstanding contribution through research and its outputs over a period of up to 6 years of research work from the commencement of the research career, predominantly in South Africa, prizes sponsored by the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS).
— ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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