Professor Pieter Steyn was born in 5 January 1940 in Vryburg in the North West. He is currently a senior researcher at the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at the University of Stellenbosch, distinguishing himself in the area of the chemistry and biosynthesis of mycotoxins. These toxins are produced on substrates by the secondary metabolism of fungi. Prof. Steyn holds the distinction of having a toxigenic fungus bear his name, Aspergillus steynii.
He was honoured for his work on the ochratoxins, a group of fungal toxins second only in importance to the aflatoxins, a group of potent liver carcinogens. He is recognised for his contribution to linking fungi to diseases, and developing mechanisms for control of these in food and feeds and has won the National Science and Technology Forum Award for 2008/09 for individual work over a lifetime.
Prof. Steyn has devoted his career to the hazardous substances produced by fungi growing on cereals, coffee and nuts. Mycotoxins are present wherever toxigenic fungi can be found, for example on cereals, nuts and on vines. Their impact on the safety of food during the growing, production and processing phases may be life-threatening.
He has carried out his work variously at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, at the North West University, and lately at the University of Stellenbosch. His research on mycotoxins, hazardous substances produced by fungi, has led to improvements in food and safety standards in South Africa and overseas.
He also made path-finding contributions to understanding the chemistry of South African plant toxins, particularly the bufadlenolides, with positive implications for a number of fields in agriculture. Africa is seriously at risk as the fungi have been linked to contamination of cereals both pre- and post-harvest and have been identified as contributing to liver and oesophageal cancer as well as diseases in sheep.
Based on expertise gained by Prof. Steyn’s research, in which the chemical characteristics of mycotoxins were scrutinised and recorded, sophisticated analytical methods were developed to determine these toxins at the parts per billion levels, as well as to detoxify contaminated feeds and control their effects in the food chain.
Prof. Steyn has been the Acting President of the Academy of Sciences of SA (ASoSA), a Member of the Royal Society of SA (RSSA) from 2003 to now, a founder Member of the Academy of Science of SA from 1994 to the present, a Fellow of the – Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) from 2001 to the present, a Fellow of the Royal Society of SA (RSSA) from 1996 to the present, a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Member of the South African Chemical Institute from1977 to 1988.
To date Prof. Steyn has been awarded the Raikes Gold Medal from the South African Chemical Institute, Johannesburg (1975), a Gold Medal from the South African Chemical Institute (1987), a Merit Prize from the CSIR (1987), the Havenga Prize for Chemistry from the Suid Afrikaans Akademie vir Wetenskap and Kuns (1992), the Friedrich Schweitzer Medal from the International Association of Cereal Science and Technology, Vienna (1993) and the Hendrick van Eck Medal from the South African Chemistry Institute.
Prof. Steyn is married to Margot Marie de Villiers Odendaal. They have two sons and a daughter.
On 27 April 2011, the State President, Jacob G Zuma honoured Professor Pieter Steyn with the Order of Mapungubwe in Silver for his excellent and lifetime contribution to research in the field of chemistry and polymer sciences.