Variety Improvement

Key Areas

This programme conducts research and implements strategies for the continual release of high yielding, adaptable, pest and disease resistant varieties that add value and enhance industry productivity. Supporting the programme are six research stations strategically sited throughout the SA sugar belt, which are operated by highly skilled technical and farm support staff.

Commercial Breeding lies at the core of the Variety Improvement Programme. This major component of SASRI activities consists of five primary areas of research and operations, namely; crossing, selection, genotype testing, bulking and variety release.

Together, this highly co-ordinated series of activities results in the release to the industry of varieties with high sugar yield (both sucrose and cane yield), pest and disease resistance, adaptability, ratooning ability and agronomic and milling characteristics that are desirable to both millers and growers.

Articulating strongly with Commercial Breeding, Variety Characterisation research and development aims to provide comprehensive information on the performance of new varieties under different management practices and agro-climatic conditions upon, or soon after, their release to the industry.

As for Commercial Breeding, Variety Characterisation is complemented by a series of research projects that are instituted to address specific issues, for example variety ratoon longevity and the performance of varieties derived from the NovaCane® Technology.

Introgression Breeding seeks to expand the genetic base of parental germplasm used in Commercial Breeding by performing successive crosses between elite commercial varieties and either plant species closely related to sugarcane or ancestral species that gave rise to modern commercial hybrid varieties. Of particular relevance is that Introgression Breeding provides access to genes from other species that have the potential to contribute improved vigour, resilience and pest and disease resistance to commercial varieties bred through Commercial Breeding.

Research in this area also focuses on the development of methods and technologies to enable the crossing of sugarcane varieties with closely related and progenitor cane species, which includes synchronisation of flowering, pollen storage and genetic diversity analysis.

The SASRI Herbarium is a specialist collection of over 75 dried specimens representing genera closely related to sugarcane with a living collection of 2 659 sugarcane cultivars and sugarcane relatives, focusing on the Saccharinae. An extended living collection of over 300 species native to or naturalised in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa is also available on the campus. We are estimating around 100 species of grasses on the site, which will be surveyed during flowering season. The herbarium has identified two new species, namely, Tripidium demetae and Saccharum cultum. These are contained both in the living collection and type specimen are also contained within the herbarium collection.

Research and development underlying Trait Development are strongly focused on the development of innovations of strategic importance to the future delivery and sustainable cultivation of varieties with novel traits (characteristics) within the industry.

Traits currently under development include stem borer resistance as well as herbicide and drought tolerance. Research in this area includes the development of technologies and resources required for genetic engineering, mutagenic breeding and the in vitro storage and preservation of valuable germplasm, as well as demonstrating proof-of-concept regarding the performance of the novel lines produced.

This research area focuses on unravelling the extremely complex sugarcane genome with a view to the development of genetic markers linked to important sugarcane traits, for example pest and disease resistance. Knowledge and resources generated in this area feed into breeding research.

Dr Sandy Snyman

Programme Manager: Variety Improvement Principal Scientist: Biotechnology


Programme Manager: Variety Improvement
Principal Scientist: Biotechnology

Tel: 031 508 7400 (Switchboard)
Tel: 031 508 7460 (Direct)

Role & Overall Purpose
  • As Variety Improvement Programme Manager, I co-ordinate and facilitate research to attain established strategic objectives.
  • As Principal Scientist: Biotechnology, I initiate, manage and drive tissue culture, micropropagation and genetic transformation research projects that will contribute to improved sugarcane varieties.
  • As an Honorary Senior Lecturer at UKZN, I collaborate with academic staff and supervise post-graduate students.
  • I am also an NRF-rated scientist and recipient of research funding from TIA-Biosafety SA, the latter enabling collaborative research with specialists at other SA Universities.
  • I liaise with Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Directorate: Plant Genetic Resources on GM related issues.
  • In vitro tissue culture of sugarcane for the purposes of micropropagation, transgenesis, virus elimination, mutagenic breeding and germplasm conservation.
  • Molecular characterisation of transgenic plants and agronomic assessment of transgenic sugarcane in the field.
  • Regulatory framework for GM crops within SA.
  • Conducting risk assessments of GM crops for field release.
Research Interests
  • Deployment of NovaCane® and N12 Zapyr plants to the South African sugarcane industry.
  • Progressing commercial release of eldana resistant Bt GM sugarcane that is also herbicide tolerant.
  • Conducting biosafety research for regulatory approval of GM sugarcane.
  • Germplasm conservation via slow growth and cryopreservation.
  • Virus elimination via osmo- and cryo-therapy.
  • The use of chemical mutagenesis to improve selected characteristics of South African sugarcane germplasm.
Key Outcomes
  • Production of transgenic sugarcane that is eldana resistant and herbicide tolerant.
  • Applied use of tissue culture for rapid bulking of sugarcane cultivars. The process has been registered as a trademark, NovaCane®.
  • Deployment of N12 Zapyr, produced by mutagenic breeding, that is tolerant to imazapyr herbicide.
  • Osmo- and cryo-therapy of shoot tips for virus elimination.
Key Publications

Gonzales-Arnao MT, Banasiak M, Snyman SJ, Sershen (2020). The potential of cryotherapy to remove Sugarcane Mosaic Virus from sugarcane (Saccharum spp. hybrids) shoot tips. CryoLetters 41(5):267-271.

Snyman SJ, Naidoo M, MP Watt and Rutherford RS (2019). An in vitro screening system to assess aluminium toxicity in sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology – Plant 55:403-408. DOI: 10.1007/s11627-019-09994-2

Mahlanza T, Rutherford RS, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2019). Methylglyoxal-induced enhancement of somatic embryogenesis and associated metabolic changes in sugarcane (Saccharum spp. hybrids). Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture 136(2):279-287. DOI 10.1007/s11240-018-1513-7

Snyman SJ, Komape DM, Khanyi H, van den Berg J, Cilliers D, Lloyd Evans D, Barnard S and Siebert SJ (2018). Assessing the likelihood of gene flow from sugarcane (Saccharum hybrids) to wild relatives in South Africa. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology 6:72. DOI: 10.3389/fbioe.2018.00072

Koetle MJ, Lloyd Evans D, Singh V, Snyman SJ, Rutherford RS and Watt MP (2018). Agronomic evaluation and molecular characterisation of the acetolactate synthase gene in imazapyr tolerant sugarcane (Saccharum hybrid) genotypes. Plant Cell Reports 37(8):1201-1213. DOI: 10.1007/s00299-018-2306-5

Snyman SJ, Banasiak M, Mhlanga P, Mupanehari E and Watt MP (2018). Strategies for maintaining and increasing throughput of in vitro cultures of sugarcane. Acta Horticulturae 1205:763-768. DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.2018.1205.95

Snyman SJ, Shezi SN and Ramburan S (2018). Field assessment of in vitro micropropagated NovaCane® sugarcane (Saccharum species hybrids). Sugar Tech 20(5):609-612. DOI 10.1007/s12355-017-0574-y

Banasiak M and Snyman SJ (2017). Exploring in vitro germplasm conservation options for sugarcane in South Africa. In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology – Plant 53:402-409. DOI 10.1007/s11627-017-9853-2

Rutherford RS, Maphalala KZ, Koch AC, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2017). Field and laboratory assessments of sugarcane mutants selected in vitro for resistance to imazapyr herbicide. Crop Breeding and Applied Biotechnology 17:107-114. DOI 10.1590/1984-70332017v17n2a17.

Hajari E, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2017). The effect of form and level of inorganic N on nitrogen use efficiency of sugarcane grown in potsJ Plant Nutrition 40(2):248-257. DOI 10.1080/01904167.2016.1237648.

Snyman SJ, Mhlanga P and Watt MP (2016). Rapid screening of sugarcane plantlets for in vitro mannitol-induced stress. Sugar Tech 18:437-440. DOI 10.1007/s12355-015-0411-0.

Snyman SJ, Hajari E, Watt MP, Lu Y and Kridl JC (2015). Improved nitrogen use efficiency in transgenic sugarcane: phenotypic assessment in a pot trial under low nitrogen conditions. Plant Cell Reports 34:667-669. DOI 10.1007/s00299-015-1768-y.

Hajari E, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2015). Nitrogen use efficiency of sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) varieties under in vitro conditions with varied N supply. Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture 122:21-29. DOI 10.1007/s11240-015-0746-y.

Mahlanza T, Rutherford RS, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2015). Potential of Fusarium sacchari-tolerant mutants in controlling Eldana saccharina and borer-associated Fusarium stem rot in sugarcane. European Journal of Plant Pathology (accepted) DOI 10.1007/s10658-014-0582-7.

Mahlanza T, Rutherford RS, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2014). Eldana saccharina (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) resistance in sugarcane (Saccharum sp.): Effects of Fusarium spp., stalk rind, fibre and nitrogen content. African Entomology 22(3): 810-822.

Hajari E, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2014). Inorganic nitrogen uptake kinetics of sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) varieties under in vitro conditions and with varying N supply. Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture: Journal of Plant Biotechnology 117:361-371..

Rutherford RS, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2014). In vitro studies on somaclonal variation and induced mutagenesis: progress and prospects in sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) – a review. The Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology 89:1-16.

Munsamy A, Rutherford RS, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2013). 5-Azacydiine as a tool to induce somaclonal variants with useful traits in sugarcane (Saccharum spp.). Plant Biotechnology Reports 7:489-502.

Mahlanza T, Snyman SJ, Rutherford RS and Watt MP (2013). In vitro generation of somaclonal variant plants of sugarcane for tolerance to Fusarium sacchari. Plant Cell Reports 32:249-262.

Meyer GM and Snyman SJ (2013). Progress in research on genetically modified sugarcane in South Africa and associated regulatory requirements. Acta Horticulturae 974:43-50.

Snyman SJ, van Antwerpen, Ramgareeb S and McFarlane SA (2012). Sugarcane pathogens: detection and elimination through in vitro culture. Functional Plant Science and Biotechnology 6: 12-18.

Koch AC, Ramagreeb S, Rutherford RS, Snyman SJ and Watt MP (2012). An in vitro mutagenesis protocol for the production of sugarcane tolerant to the herbicide imazapyr. In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology-Plant 48:417-427.

Snyman SJ, Meyer GM, Koch AC, Banasiak M and Watt MP (2011) Applications of in vitro culture systems for commercial sugarcane production and improvement. In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology – Plant 47:234-249. DOI 10.1007/s11627-011-9354-7I.

Snyman SJ, Nkwanyana PD and Watt MP (2011) Alleviation of hyperhydricity of sugarcane plantlets produced in RITA vessels and genotype and phenotypic characterisation of acclimated plants. South African Journal of Botany 77:685-692.

Ramgareeb S, Snyman SJ, van Antwerpen T and Rutherford RS (2010) Elimination of virus and rapid propagation of disease-free sugarcane (Saccharum spp. cultivar NCo376) using apical meristem culture. Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture 96:263-271. DOI 10.1007/s11240-009-9634-7.

Watt MP, Banasiak M, Reddy D, Albertse E and Snyman SJ (2009) In vitro minimal growth storage of Saccharum spp. hybrid (genotype 88H0019) at two stage of direct somatic embryogenic regeneration. Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture 96:263-271. DOI 10.1007/s11240-008-9483-9.

Brumbley SM, Snyman SJ, Gnanasambandam A, Joyce P, Hermann SR, da Silva JAG, McQualter RB, Wang M-L, Egan B, Patterson AH, Albert HH and Moore PH (2008) Sugarcane. In: A Compendium of Transgenic Crop Plants. Volume 7: Sugar, Tuber and Fiber Crops. Eds: C Kole and TC Hall. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, pp 1-58. ISBN: 978-1-405-16710-9.

Snyman SJ, Meyer GM, Richards JM, Haricharan N, Ramgareeb S and Huckett BI (2006) Refining the application of direct embryogenesis in sugarcane: effect of the developmental phase of leaf disc explants and the timing of DNA transfer on transformation efficiency. Plant Cell Reports 25:1016-1023.

Snyman SJ (2004) Transformation of sugarcane. In: Transgenic Crops of the World – Essential protocols. Ed: IS Curtis. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp 103-114.

Leibbrandt NB and Snyman SJ (2003) Stability of gene expression and agronomic performance of a transgenic herbicide-resistant sugarcane line in South Africa. Crop Science 43:671-677.


BSc Hons (Witwatersrand), MSc (Natal), PhD (Stellenbosch).


Current Projects

Crossing and breeding for agroclimatic zones in southern Africa
Variety evaluation of N cultivars on grower’s farms
Introgression breeding (pre-breeding)
Commercial development of genetically modified (GM) sugarcane for insect borer resistance and herbicide tolerance
Preparative research for regulatory biosafety aspects related to GM commercial release
Investigating alternative Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticidal proteins for control of lepidopteran borers, yellow sugarcane aphid and thrips
Bioinformatics pipeline development to analyse genomics and transcriptomic data
Identifying defence genes associated with eldana resistance
Mutation breeding for biotic and abiotic stress tolerance
Characterisation of stress resistant sugarcane mutants (e.g. for drought , aluminium and salt tolerance)
Long-term storage of valuable germplasm using in vitro techniques including minimal growth and cryopreservation