[Hong Yi] Zhang Xian’en: Interpreting the Landscape of Biotechnology Development in China in the New Era

Editor’s note:

The talk show "Hong Yi" is jointly produced by Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences and China Internet Information Center. By interviewing academicians, experts and scholars of the two academies, experts and scholars, the show delves deeply into the development prospects of various fields in China during the "Fourteenth Five-Year Plan” period. With objective and accurate interpretations, scientific and forward-looking considerations, the show aims to clarify questions about China's development at the historical intersection of the "Two Centenary Goals," contributing intellectual strength to the second centenary goal.




In the report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, it was proposed to construct a modern industrial system, with "biotechnology" being planned as a new growth engine. From the perspective of science and technology, where should China focus its efforts in the development of biotechnology? How will synthetic biology help achieve the carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals? In this regard, the program "Hong Yi" interviewed Zhang Xian’en, Dean of Institute of Synthetic Biology, Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology ((in preparation) and a researcher at Institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences: In the report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, it has been proposed to promote the cluster development of strategic emerging industries, including biotechnology. In your opinion, in what areas does China need to strengthen research and investment?


Zhang Xian’en:It has been several five-year plans since the proposal and development of strategic emerging industries. At present, China's strategic emerging industries involve several aspects, including next-generation information technology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. The recent proposal for "clustered development" of strategic emerging industries aligns well with the needs of the times. Strategic emerging industries have already formed their own clusters, with each cluster, from Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta, to the Pearl River Delta, developing its own distinctive characteristics. Although biotechnology was proposed quite early, there's room for improvement both in scale and quality. In the future, whether it's human health, food safety, or daily needs for bio-based products, the market is vast, and the technological competition is intense.


In terms of biotechnology, the first area is medical biotechnology. The ongoing extension of human lifespan and enhancements in health are, to a significant extent, the result of advancements in medical and healthcare technology. The second area is agricultural biotechnology, which directly pertains to food security and food safety. The third area is bio-manufacturing, which is characterized by its "green" nature. Using biotechnology and green manufacturing to meet daily human needs holds strategic significance. Bio-manufacturing is the result of industrialization of bioscience and biotechnology. In its future development, the integration with information technology, artificial intelligence, and engineering sciences will significantly improve its efficiency. In the early days of synthetic biology, it tried to learn from the principles of engineering and develop efficient biotechnology. However, we face challenges in understanding and designing biological systems due to their complexity, which is why theoretical development is crucial. The development and formation of theories involves two aspects. Firstly, the so-called "white box" theory means to design biological systems with known principles, or by summing up the laws of biological systems. Secondly, artificial intelligence based on biological big data, which has made rapid breakthroughs internationally over recent years, means to find some underlaying laws through machine learning. The former is called "white box" and the latter is called "black box". If they are superimposed, it is possible to develop them into the theoretical content of synthetic biology. We should combine theory with so-called enabling technology, and put them into application. The road map of synthetic biology that we are working on shows that this concept of discipline system may be unique with Chinese characteristics compared with that of international counterparts. The disciplinary system of synthetic biology is conducive to the development and wide application of technology, which may also be a contribution to human sciences in the future.


Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences: As an expert in life sciences, what contributions has China made to global research in related fields, especially after the experience of combating the COVID-19 pandemic?


Zhang Xian’en: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world. We've all experienced it personally. The development of life sciences in China has its process spanning over a decade and nearly three years since the pandemic. There are several changes in this process: Firstly, there is an overall progress. We are relatively lagging behind developed countries in life sciences for the following reasons. First, due to historical reasons, when molecular biology developed rapidly, we were busy with other issues. Second, the realistic reason is that the investment in life sciences is higher in developed countries. Third, as for industrial activities, in developed countries, especially in the United States, there are relatively mature mechanisms and systems for research, transformation and industrialization. We lagged behind because we started it late.


Secondly, China has made considerable progress in frontier sciences like neuroscience, stem cell research, and synthetic biology, drawing international attention. For example, in synthetic biology, we organized the meeting of six academies in three countries together with the United States and Britain 10 years ago. The three countries are China, the United States and Britain, and the six academies are academies of sciences and engineering in these three countries. The meeting comprehensively discussed the future development of synthetic biology, the support it needs, the policies and environment. It was very successful. Ten years later, we can see the progress China has made in synthetic biology. The scale of published papers is now comparable to the United States. From a macro perspective, life sciences can be roughly divided into biology, agrobiological sciences and medical sciences. The share of top-cited papers (1%) in biological sciences, agricultural sciences and medical science has reached double digits from single digits a decade ago, indicating significant progress.


Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences: Could you please explain how the development of synthetic biology will help achieve the carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals?


Zhang Xian’en: From an application perspective, it can be reflected in several ways:


Firstly, synthetic biology can produce substances of energy source such as ethanol and fuel. Traditionally, these substances have been produced from fossil fuels, which are a major source of pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. By using synthetic biology to produce these substances, the emissions of carbon dioxide can be significantly reduced.


Secondly, synthetic biology can replace traditional chemical processes used to produce many daily chemical products. The potential in this area is huge. For example, nylon, plastic, fibers, rubber, and many other chemical raw materials can now be produced in ways that greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. There's already promising progress in this area, indicating it is an industry of the future as a whole.


Thirdly, carbon dioxide can be directly turned into high value-added products. The conversion of carbon dioxide into starch, ranked as one of the "Top Ten Scientific Advances" two years ago, was achieved through synthetic biology. Last year, another major "Top Ten Sci-tech News" was the conversion of carbon dioxide into glucose and fats, metaphorically transforming carbon dioxide into "grain” and “oil”. This utilization of carbon dioxide as a resource to transform it directly into useful products also contributes to the carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals.


Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences: While leading scientific research, you also took the helm in 2021 to spearhead the establishment of Institute of Synthetic Biology, Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology (in preparation). What are your hopes and expectations for nurturing young scientific talents?


Zhang Xian’en: During the establishment process, I was honored to participate in the preparatory work of the Institute of Synthetic Biology. I realized, first, that as an emerging interdisciplinary discipline, synthetic biology urgently needs talent. Unlike traditional disciplines with mature knowledge systems, there's a significant gap and demand for talent in this new discipline in the future. In addition, it represents the core driving force for the development of future biological industry.


In the process of establishing the institute, our fundamental philosophy is to cultivate the next generation for the entire field, and for the nation's future biological industry development. This involves preparing outstanding young talents in biological sciences as well as innovative talents and innovative leading talents in the future biological industry. In the vibrant innovation environment of Shenzhen, both types of talents are highly sought after. Their cultivation is crucial for Shenzhen, the nation, and the entire field.


We've adopted various measures, relying on: first, high-level scientists and educators as we have gathered a group of elite scholars; second, Shenzhen's cutting-edge synthetic biology research facilities, which will be mostly completed this year, providing an invaluable platform for scientific research and student training; and third, Shenzhen's environment favorable for transformation of research results. In our curriculum, we emphasize research activities and innovative transformation practices. Through combination of teaching and hands-on practice, students will receive excellent training. Depending on their personal interests, they might become future outstanding figures in biological sciences or join the industrial work force as leading talents. Though the university is still in preparation, we are very confident about its future.