China has long been known for its state led initiatives, and its interest in synthetic biology is no different. While China has been slow to get into the game of synbio, it has recognized the potential of the field to develop real-world applications to address its agricultural and environmental issues. It seems that China’s interest in the field emerged around 2007, when the first Chinese iGEM team from Peking University appeared on the stage and became the world champions with their project, “Towards Self-differentiated Bacterial Assembly Line.” Since then, China has doubled down on it’s investment in synthetic biology with a coordinated top-down approach.
China’s centralized approach to science and technology is relatively new. “The past 30 years of relative political stability, however, have constituted a unique period in China’s modern history, providing opportunities for scientific and technological development unprecedented in the past 150 years.” It was in the 1980’s, just about 30 years ago, that China started to develop government facilitated research efforts. Because China has a large population, much of its biotech research efforts have been focused on agricultural development and harvesting biomass, which has made China the leading country in crop breeding. Additionally, China’s recognition of environmental issues has led to a research focus on bioremediation. This recognition of domestic issues and the determination to solve them, coupled with Chinese leaders’ prioritization of economic development through science and education has led to a massive influx of funding and a coordinated effort to become a global powerhouse in science and technology. The following figure shows the growth of the gross expenditure in research and development (GERD) from 2004 to 2008. China plans on increasing the R&D spending from 1.5% of GDP in the early 2010’s to 2.5% by 2020.
As mentioned previously, China’s interest in synthetic biology was slow to start but has been growing. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has been the powerhouse of technological innovation in China, overseeing over 100 research institutions.
Research institutions underneath CAS relevant to synthetic biology
- Beijing Institute of Genomics
- Chengdu Institute of Biology
- Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health
- Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology
- Institute of Microbiology
- Qingdao Institute of Biological Energy and Bioprocess Technology
- Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences
- Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology (preparatory)
- Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research
- Institute of Earth Environment
- Nanjing Institute of Soil Science
- Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences
- Key Laboratory of Synthetic Biology
However, in December 2008 the Key Laboratory of Synthetic Biology (KLSynB) was established, marking the government’s first official foray into synthetic biology. The development of this Key Laboratory seems to have been a response to the Xiangshan Conference on Synthetic Biology, which took place in February 2008 and was the first of its kind in China, which itself seems to have been a response to Peking University’s victory at the 2007 iGEM competition. China’s strategic targets for synthetic biology development have been summarized in the following table.
Source: National Academies Press (US); 2013 Aug 5. 3, Strategies for Advancing Synthetic Biology. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK202050/
Since it’s founding in 2008, the Key Laboratory of Synthetic Biology has grown to over 60 research scientists and 70 graduate students. This group focuses on the development of both theory and technology for synthetic biology, and it’s three stated research fields are:
- The basic researches for synthetic biology.
- The innovation of enabling technology and development of engineering platforms for synthetic biology.
- Nurturing innovation chains from basic research, technology development, and translational research to synthetic bio-manufacturing.
The Key Laboratory of Synthetic Biology (KLSynB)
Professor Zhongjun Qin, Laboratory Director
Professor Shengli Yan, Academic Committee Director
Professor Yong Wang and Chen Yang, Laboratory Vice Directors
Dr. Guo-Ping Zhao, Microbial Functional Genomics
Dr. Zhong-Jun Qin, Synthetic Microbiology
Dr. Chen Yang, Microbial Metabolic Engineering
Dr. Xuan Li, Bioinformatics Research
Dr. Yi Zhang, Recombinant Proteins
Dr. Wei-Hong Jiang and Dr. Sheng Yang, Microbial Metabolic Regulation
Dr. Zhi- Hua Zhou, Fungal Molecular Genetics
Dr. Yong Wang, Natural Products Development
Dr. You-Li Xiao, Chemical Biology and Enzymology
Dr. Ping-Zuo Li, Bioactive Products Engineering
To date, over 250 million Yuan, or around 38 million dollars, have been awarded to synthetic biology projects underneath the 973 Program. “Synthetic biology has become an area of continuous investments by [the Ministry of Science and Technology] in China. In the upcoming years, 2–3 large 973 projects will be initiated every year beginning from 2012… which has demonstrated that synthetic biology has been taken as [strategic] importance for the nation.”
Synthetic Biology projects that have received funding from the 973 program
- Professor MA Yanhe, Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology (Chinese Academic of Sciences). Project entitled: “Synthetic Cell Factories”. Project Financial Years 2011–2015.
- Professor ZHAO Guoping, Shanghai Institute of Life Sciences (Chinese Academic of Sciences). Project entitled: “Artificial Biological Devices with Special Functions: Designing, Construction and Assembly”. Project Financial Years 2012–2016.
- Professor FENG Yan, Shanghai Jiaotong University. Project entitled: “Synthetic System of Microbial Medicines for Genetic and Production Innovation”. Project Financial Years 2012–2016.
- Professor CHEN Guo-Qiang, Tsinghua University. Project entitled: “Construction of New Synthetic Pathways for Bio-based Materials using Synthetic Biology Approach”. Project Financial Years 2012–2016.
- Professor LIN Zhanglin, Tsinghua University. Project entitled: “Synthetic Genetic Devices for Improving Stress Tolerance for Microbes and Plants”. Project Financial Years 2013–2017.
- Professor ZHANG Lixin, Institute of Microbiology, (Chinese Academic of Sciences). Project entitled: “Compatibility study of the synthetic microbial systems”. Project Financial Years 2013–2017.
- Professor YUAN Yingjin, Tianjin University. Project entitled: “Design and Synthesis of Microbial Multicellular Systems”. Project Financial Years 2014–2018.
- Professor CAI Zhiming, Shenzhen University. Project entitled: “Basic Research on Curing Bladder Cancer using Synthetic Biology Principles”. Project Financial Years 2014–2018.
Major universities with a focus in Synthetic Biology in China
- Tsinghua University
- Peking University
- Tianjin University
- Nankai University
- Jiangnan University
- Beijing University Chemical Technology
- Nanjing University of Technology
In conclusion, while China was slow to start, it has been accelerating its investment in synthetic biology and it has grown to the point where in 2013 it “contributed about 10 percent (some 400 papers) of the annual papers published on synthetic biology.” Another proxy of China’s synthetic biology growth which is evident is the number of teams that have participated in iGEM over the past 9 years. With that being said, China’s approach to synthetic biology has not been comprehensive. Several sources have noted an apparent lack of “systematic approaches… to address the ethical, legal, equity, and societal implications of synthetic biology.” However, that seems to be changing, as one of the first academic meetings on responsible research and innovation was held last summer, 2015. With China’s coordinated top-down approach towards building their synthetic biology expertise, they promise to become a global powerhouse in the years to come.