BRI prompts closer global scientific cooperation

By Zhang Zhihao | China Daily
Updated: April 29, 2019
Scientists from the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and related institutions in Africa survey land for use on the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway in Kenya. CHINA DAILY

When botanist Wang Qingfeng first visited Kenya 18 years ago, he was fascinated by the fact that many locals had snow-white teeth, but they did not use fancy dental products.

The secret was found in twigs, known as miswak, from the Salvadora persica tree. When chewed, the miswak splits into soft, bristly fibers and releases natural, antimicrobial compounds that can protect the mouth from oral disease, according to the World Health Organization.

Intrigued, Wang and his team worked with African scientists to extract the active ingredients and add them to toothpastes, which are now being manufactured by local companies, said Wang, director of the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Kenya.

The center, established in 2013, has helped transform many local plants into medicinal teas, essential oils and other products, thus improving their potency and market value. Growing the plants for industrial use has raised local farmers' living standards.

The center, in Juja, Kiambu county, is one of 10 joint overseas research and education facilities CAS has launched with foreign partners. They aim to extend scientific cooperation, talent training and innovation capability for China and countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Many BRI countries are facing developmental obstacles, including climate change, water and food security, public health, ecological protection and other challenges, Bai Chunli, president of CAS, said earlier this month.

In response, CAS launched the joint centers overseas to serve the needs of host countries and act as collaborative platforms to overcome key obstacles via scientific methods, expertise and tools, he said.

For example, the center in Sri Lanka focuses on water management, while the one in Myanmar works to preserve biodiversity, and the facility in Sao Paulo, Brazil, researches weather and space.

Over the past six years, CAS has invested more than 1.8 billion yuan ($269 million) into the BRI and launched more than 100 scientific projects to make the initiatives greener and more sustainable, Bai said.

Shavkat Salikhov (center), winner of the International Science and Technology Cooperation Award, talks with Chinese colleagues at the Central Asian Center of Drug Discovery and Development. CHINA DAILY

Basic needs

As he surveyed the Kenyan grassland, zoologist Jiang Xuelong was bitten by ticks at least 24 times. Some even burrowed under his skin and had to be removed with a knife.

Yan Xue, executive director of the joint research center in Kenya, said poor transportation, cultural barriers and dangerous wildlife are common challenges for scientists working in the field.

However, that did not stop Chinese and African scientists from surveying water sources in East African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. They have completed investigations on the quality of drinking water in Tanzania's major cities, and are now working on cities in Kenya, Yan said.

By 2024, Chinese and African scientists hope to build a database on East Africa's major rivers and lakes to help local officials make decisions on water safety, irrigation, hydroelectric power, environmental protection and other water-management issues, based on countries' specific needs, Yan added.

According to the nonprofit Water Project, water security is one of the biggest environmental challenges for African development. About 319 million people in Africa south of the Sahara have poor access to potable water.

Yan said: "The continent is not as dry as people think; there are lakes, rivers and oases throughout East Africa. The problem is lack of infrastructure, expertise and data to effectively use those resources."

Kenya and Tanzania are famed for eco-tourism, including the Great Migration, which sees millions of animals move during the dry season in search of sources of water and new habitats.

"If we can help officials better understand, track and protect those water sources, it would make industry more sustainable," Yan said.

Hu Chunsheng, director of the Center for Agricultural Resources Research at CAS, said effective water use would also lead to improved food production, a key factor in sustaining African societies amid population booms.

Agriculture is the backbone of many African economies. However, productivity has been stagnating due to a lack of advanced equipment, crop varieties and farming methods, he said.

In response, since 2014, Hu and his colleagues have brought several dozen high-quality crops from China and planted them at a cultivation demonstration area at the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center. They include Chinese-developed hybrid rice, maize, grains, sorghum and high-value commercial fruits such as grapes.

In 2017, the hybrid rice demonstrated great advantages in both growth and yields, compared with local varieties. WS13, the most successful variety, yields about 11.4 metric tons per hectare, compared with 4.87 tons per hectare for Kenya's native Basmati rice.

Chinese scientists have also selected sweet sorghum varieties from Africa and created quality hybrids with improved resistance to disease and drought, in addition to prompting higher yields, Hu said.

"All these crops have been carefully selected to succeed in the local environment and climate, and to satisfy people's dietary and economic needs," he added.

"By sharing agricultural knowhow, we hope to help African countries foster the talent and ability needed to modernize their agricultural sectors," Hu said. "In turn, this will improve the livelihoods of African farmers and open new areas for Sino-African agricultural cooperation."

However, the crops are still being tested and have not yet reached the market.


Medical connections

The ancient Silk Road was famously used for trading goods and ideas between East and West, but few people are aware of its influence on medicine.

For example, Liu Yuxi, a renowned Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet, was cured of cataracts by an Indian eye surgeon who was traveling along the trade route.

Also, many herbs recorded in The Compendium of Materia Medica, a 16th century encyclopedia of traditional Chinese medicine, originated in Persia and Central Asia.

CAS is working to uphold this tradition, and in 2013, it launched the Central Asian Center of Drug Discovery and Development with the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences.

The center's Chinese headquarters are located in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, while the Uzbekistan HQ opened in Tashkent, the capital, in November.

Last month, a joint extraction facility for natural medicines opened in Tashkent. It is the biggest and most advanced facility of its kind in Uzbekistan, said Haji Akber Aisa, director of the Central Asian Center of Drug Discovery and Development.

The facility will develop new active pharmaceutical ingredients to support Sino-Uzbek medical research, he said, adding that it will allow treatments created at the center to be manufactured locally, making them cheaper and more accessible.

"Uzbekistan has a wealth of unique herbal resources and a suitable climate to grow them in, but it lacks technologies and equipment to extract them and turn them into medicines," Aisa said.

As a result, the country must rely heavily on imported medicines and raw materials, which can raise treatment costs, he said. "China is good at turning herbs into drugs, and thanks to decades of modernizing traditional medicines, this know-how is very useful in Uzbekistan," he added.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has some of Central Asia's best plant chemistry research institutes.

By collaborating with institutes from China, such as the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, the joint center in Xinjiang has synthesized more than 120 derivatives for a possible active compound to treat irregular heartbeat, he said.

Five candidate derivatives are undergoing drug metabolism and toxicology tests. TPN171, an innovative drug to treat hypertension in arteries in the lungs, started clinical trials in China in recent years, and is being prepared for trials in Uzbekistan.

"Our cooperation can help meet the need for affordable, effective medicines. This will benefit people from both countries and across Central Asia," Aisa said.

Seeing stars

On April 10, astronomers released the first-ever image of a black hole, captured thanks to a global effort called the Event Horizon Telescope-eight interconnected telescopes around the world.

More than 200 scientists around the globe participated in the monumental project, including 16 from the Chinese mainland. They helped with data analysis and theoretical explanations of the black hole, according to CAS.

"Global collaboration is often required to make big discoveries in astronomy," said Huang Jiasheng, chief scientist of CAS's South America Center for Astronomy, located in Chile.

The center, launched in 2013 by China and Chile, aims to foster new talent and scientific cooperation, and integrate China's astronomical research with that of the rest of the world.

"Chinese astronomy began to take off after the launch of reform and opening-up, so its development was relatively late compared with the United States and European countries," Huang said.

Chile has some of the best geographical and weather conditions for astronomy, he added. By next year, about 75 percent of the world's large-scale ground telescopes will be sited in the country.

In exchange for allowing foreign countries to build telescopes in the country, Chilean scientists are guaranteed about 10 percent of the operating time at facilities for their research.

To facilitate practical Sino-Chilean scientific cooperation, the Chilean government also allows Chinese scientists to use facilities in the country.

"This way, they get to use world-class equipment for research," Huang said, adding that both countries benefit from the collaboration because they can work more closely on certain projects and train new talent in the process. "This has been a fruitful endeavor," he said.

By 2017, the center had received about 127 hours of operating time, and had published 54 papers, including some on the environment surrounding black holes and their feeding mechanisms.

Both papers were written by Claudio Ricci, a fellow at the center, who is studying on a China-Chile postdoctoral fellowship program.

Huang believes scientific bilateral cooperation will reach new heights because Chile officially joined the BRI last year.

"China will eventually need its own telescope in Chile, and a good relationship between the two countries will help achieve this goal faster," he said.

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