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Home » Policy & public » Helping Drive the Synthetic Biology Industry in China – a Look at Dr. Yin Li of The Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology

Helping Drive the Synthetic Biology Industry in China – a Look at Dr. Yin Li of The Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology

Dr. Yin Li is a nationally influential figure in the Chinese synthetic biology community and one to pay attention to over the next several years. With his focus on industrial biotechnology, Dr. Li has risen through the ranks to become the director of the leading government research institution for his field: The Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology.

It was through the 100 talents program that Yin Li shot up through the ranks. After receiving his PhD from the Wuxi University of Light Industry in 2000, Dr. Yin Li began his postgraduate career studying the methodology and optimization of pyruvate biosynthesis from organisms such as Torulopsis glabrata. Over the next several years, Dr. Li held various lecture and research positions, both domestically and abroad in Cork, Ireland and the Netherlands.

With his strong research background and his foreign experience, Dr. Li was accepted into the 100 talents program, a prestigious young scientist development program. This program is a fully immersive experience that provides its participants with a salary, a research budget, and a professorship, which provided Dr. Li an opportunity to take off. Only a year and a half into his contract, six months away from his midterm review, Dr. Li was appointed the Director for the Center for Bioenergy and Industrial Biotechnology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This appointment seems to have been an inflection point for Dr. Li as he spent the next couple years rising through the ranks and building respect while growing his research productivity from an average of 2 papers per year throughout the early 2000s to 10 papers in 2012.

In 2011, the 973 program, developed by China in the 1980’s to model the NSF funding program, awarded their first swath of grants for synthetic biology research. Only eight projects were chosen to split the RMB 250M (~$38M) research allocation. Dr. Li’s project, “Synthetic Cell Factories,” was one of them and was his transition into the world of synthetic biology.To date, Dr. Li has been an author in over 60 publications; a tour through the abstracts tells a story of his intellectual development. As mentioned above, Dr. Li began his career studying pyruvate biosynthesis. Throughout the next several years, he deepened his expertise in biosynthesis and fermentation by expanding to other industrially relevant biomolecules such as 1,3-propanediol and butanol. As the publications progress, you can see his increased interest in the system itself and how it functions rather than an interest in just the end product.  Through his understanding and mastery of these systems and of the fermentation process itself, Dr. Li has been an inventor on at least 22 patents covering topics such as methods for high throughput protein engineering to the development of an oxygen control system to modulate the oxidoreduction potential and to optimize fermentation. Over the course of 10 years, Dr. Li had established himself as an expert authority in industrial biotechnology.

Dr. Li is currently serving as a Vice President to the Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology (TIB), the Chinese Academy of Science’s premier research institution focusing on the “eco-friendly development of industrial sectors. [They] link research and industry by tackling the key challenges hampering the commercial application of living organisms.”1  They approach their research based on a “multidisciplinary emerging science – New Biology, which integrates protein science, systems biology, synthetic biology, and fermentation science.”1

The Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology approaches the development of industrial biotechnology in a comprehensive and scrupulous fashion.

The goals are set to align with China’s national interest, such as creating new carbon resources instead of through fossils and substituting green bioprocessing for traditional chemical processing, and the structure of the organization is broken down in such a way as to systematically build the knowledge, tools, and applications to accomplish their goals. TIB has become an invaluable resource; anybody who wants to learn about industrial biotechnology and the knowledge and processes that underlie it can use the TIB’s publications as an excellent starting point for their research. The research divisions and respective functions are summarized below:

National Engineering Laboratory for Industrial Enzymes

The laboratory focuses on the fundamental and applied research on industrial enzymes with a mission of promoting the advances in the technologies for the discovery, production and applications of industrial enzymes, and has established the technical platforms for the high-throughput discovery and evaluation, protein engineering, production process development and applications of industrial enzymes.

Research Areas

  1.    Industrial Protein Science
  2.    Biotransformation and Process Engineering
  3.    Glycoengineering

Tianjin Biocatalysis Technology Center

The center emphasizes the application of biocatalytic technology in the production of high-value chemicals for pharmaceutical, agrochemical, food ingredient and cosmetic industries, with the aim to provide technical support for the sustainable development of these industries.

Research Areas

  1. Enzyme discovery and evolution
  2. Immobilization of biocatalysts and bioprocess engineering
  3. In vitro multi-enzymatic cascade reactions
  4. Chemo-enzymatic synthesis of high-value chemicals

CAS Key Laboratory of Systems Microbial Biotechnology

This laboratory combines genomics, systems biology, and synthetic biology to elucidate the molecular basis of microbial physiology and metabolic regulation, engineering, genomic engineering, and evolutionary engineering to create highly efficient microbial cell factories for the production of bio-based materials, biofuels, fine and bulk chemicals.

Research Areas

  1.    Genomics and functional genomics of industrial microorganisms and bioprocesses
  2.    Simulation and design of biological networks
  3.    Discovery, improvement and creation of functional biological parts
  4.    Construction and optimization of efficient cell factories
  5.    Design and optimization of in vitro biosystems

Tianjin Key Laboratory for Industrial Biological systems and Bioprocessing Engineering

This laboratory emphasizes the simulation and industrial application of natural biological systems and develops integrated systems by taking a biomimetic approach. The ultimate goal of the key laboratory is to use clean bioprocessing methods to replace traditional chemical processing, to improve bioprocessing controllability, and to achieve energy conservation and emission reductions.

Research Areas

  1.    Process characterization of cell communities and its application to bioprocessing
  2.    Energy and mass transfer and bioconversion mechanisms for bioreactors
  3.    Process coupling, integration and optimization of bioprocessing systems

In addition to a massive research powerhouse, the TIB also graduates Masters and PhD students in biological and chemical engineering. Currently, TIB hosts almost 30 advisors and almost 200 students. There are currently three main routes to becoming a research scientist or a professor: by submitting a cold application, by the 1000 talents program, or by the 100 talents program that Li pursued. Lastly, the TIN is very active in its technology transfer and IP commercialization role. They have a center called the Innovation and Incubation Center which has spun off eight companies and they work with some of the local governments to promote the transformation and development of the local economy. So far, they have carried out 62 projects valued around 150M yuan.

As a vice president of this prestigious institution, Dr. Li has certainly positioned himself to become a very influential figure in Chinese synthetic biology. Fueled by China’s increasing investment in the field, Dr. Li’s influence is likely to spread internationally over the next several years as key technologies emerge from his institution that revolutionize industrial biotechnology and synthetic biology.


Shaun Moshasha

Executive Director at Open Bio Labs

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