What I learned in a Hong Kong science park
When I was young towns and cities had industrial estates. Over time these were rebranded to business parks. Now though any self-respecting city has a science park. Science is seen as the fount of well paid and defendable jobs for the future and science parks are springing up all over the place. China, not a country to do things by halves, wants to be a leader in science and here is a photo taken a fortnight ago of yours truly at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park.
Like most buildings in Hong Kong this magnificent 22 hectares of glass and polished stone seems to have gone up overnight. To find out what what goes on here I headed to a big ‘Directory’ sign – which turned out to be a directory of the site’s many restaurants. In Hong Kong there is only one thing more important than making money, and that is food!
China’s three science priorities
But when not eating the site’s workers are pursuing three main ambitions – ‘Robotics’, ‘the Smart City’ and ‘Healthy Ageing’ that play to Chinese priorities. China’s latest 5 Year Plan emphasises the need to improve the quality of life, lifting the masses out of grubby factories and subsistence farming and making China not only a richer country but a nicer place to live. In a country where a depressingly large number of people feel the need to wear a face mask China wants to improve its air quality, make food and water safe to consume, boost its agricultural productivity through modern, large-scale, farming, and offer better healthcare. High priority industries backed by the State are information technology, high-end manufacturing, new-energy vehicles, railway transport equipment, environmental protection, modern agricultural machinery and biotechnology and these efforts are boosted by ‘sea turtles’ – the name given to nationals who return to the mainland typically from US universities.
Chinese students often excel at science and mathematics, rather than the arts, and they are now at the forefront of international research. Taking cancer as an example China now publishes 17% of the the world’s cancer research publications, up from around 5% in the mid-2000s, and matching the output of the USA. Meanwhile the Beijing Genomics Institute is probably the world’s biggest genomics organization.
The tip of this iceberg of research hits the headlines. In April 2015 Junjiu Huang and his team at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou became the first to edit the DNA of a human embryo. Their aim was to correct an aberrant gene that causes the life-threatening blood disorder beta-thalassaemia, but the experiment raised the spectre of designer babies and unalterable changes to the genes of succeeding generations. Last November China reported another world first. This time oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University took cells from patients with aggressive lung cancer and disabled the gene responsible for producing the PD-1 protein that restricts the immune response. Then these edited cells were returned to the patients for whom, it is to be hoped, they will fight the cancer. Thus Chinese scientists became the first in the world to inject people with cells edited by the CRISPR technique, beating American teams and prompting one commentator to describe “ ‘Sputnik 2.0’, a biomedical duel between China and the United States.
Criminals should fear biotech beagles
In healthcare China wants to reform a system, prone to corruption that sees hospitals make profits by selling drugs to their patients. It also wants to overhaul the approval process for new drugs, helping the country to move away from a reliance on generic drugs to the discovery of new specialist drugs for the Chinese population. In agriculture China is already a major producer of biotech cotton. Almost all of the cotton grown in China has been genetically modified to repel pests such as the bollworm, while China also grows virus-resistant GM papaya and a small amount of GM poplar, the wood used to make furniture. In deference to public opinion that is ignorant and wary of the technology GM food crops are less common, but this is likely to change.
President Xi Jinping has said that ‘in research and innovation we shall be bold, so we can take the commanding heights in biotechnology, and not let large foreign companies dominate the agricultural biotechnology market.’ The take-over of Syngenta by ChinaChem is part of China’s efforts to modernize its agricultural industry and GM crops are likely to gain ground.
The National GE Animal Technology Research Center is found at the University of Inner Mongolia and here Chinese researchers are working to improve the improve the quality of milk, meat, wool and medicines. Chinese teams have reportedly produced GM cows rich in the Omega-3 fatty acids usually derived from fish, and given pigs genes that allow them to contract human diseases and thus serve as trial subjects for new treatments. Researchers from the College of Veterinary Medicine in Shaanxi have genetically modified cows to render them resistant to tuberculosis. And in a sinister warning to criminals another experiment has snipped a gene that inhibits muscle growth in beagles, enabling them to have stronger muscles, run faster and jump higher. ‘The same technology could potentially benefit the police and military in the future if applied to canine breeds commonly used by law enforcement agencies,’ says Lai Liangxue, of the Southern China Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.
Finally China is interested in the potential of biotechnology to provide much needed clean energy. In the early 2000’s China encouraged the use of ethanol to take advantage of then abundant grain supplies. Ten years later the grain surplus had turned into a deficit, pushing up food prices and forcing China to import grain. So now it is looking for other sources of green energy. One is biodiesel made from used cooking oil. But scavengers who haul ‘gutter oil’ out of drains make better money by selling back to the nation’s kitchens – a disgusting and dangerous practice. Otherwise ethanol is being made in small quantities from non-grain based feedstocks such as sweet sorghum and cassava but cellulosic bioethanol, based on inedible plant stalks and other waste, is uneconomic. Also uneconomic at present is algae. But if algae can be bioengineered to boost its oil content then, according to one estimate, the country’s entire energy needs could be supplied by cultivating algae on 10% of its land area.