As the world’s population grows, people will need more food, which is why learning the genetic information that shapes staple crops such as rice is so important. And to honour his contributions to this endeavor, Li Jiayang, a key agricultural researcher in this field in China and also in the world, is one of this year’s winners of the TWAS-Lenovo Science Award.
More than half of the world’s population eats rice, making it among the most important crops for agricultural research. With not only population growth but some difficult environmental shifts anticipated due to climate change, innovative rice production has become a high priority for achieving important goals such as the elimination of hunger and poverty. So today, many scientists are dedicating their careers to breeding new varieties of rice plants that can endure difficult conditions, and also produce large amounts of grains that are both nutritious and desirable to consumers for their cooking quality.
“In general, the award to rice research indicates that food security is still one of the most important focuses in the world,” said Li of receiving the prize. “To me, it inspires myself and my research group to make even greater efforts in developing super rice that can have higher yield and better quality with less input.”
The TWAS-Lenovo Award was announced after this year’s meeting of the TWAS Council. The annual award, now in its seventh edition, includes a prize of USD50,000 to each winner provided by the Chinese technology company Lenovo, the global leader in consumer, commercial, and enterprise technology that is the largest PC company in the world. It is one of the most prestigious honours given to scientists from the developing world. The other winner of this year’s prize is Brazilian agronomist Mariangela Hungria.
"Dr. Li is one of the most distinguished scientists in his field, and his work has had an impressive impact in China in particular," said TWAS President Mohamed H.A. Hassan. "His work also demonstrates how important basic research is for important priorities such as applied science research that provides food security in the developing world.”
"We are most pleased to congratulate the winners of this year’s award, who are both impressively accomplished researchers in the agricultural sciences," said Lenovo Senior Vice President George He. "Both Li Jiayang, who has made indispensable landmark discoveries important to rice production, and Mariangela Hungria, who has introduced important environmentally friendly agricultural practices in Brazil and empowered women in her field, are spectacular researchers. And it is indeed our honour to present this year's TWAS-Lenovo Science Award to both of them.”
Developing new, better crops
Li and his team received acclaim for cloning and studying rice plant genes that allow researchers and breeders to modify what’s known as the architecture of plants. This includes the size and number of rice grains and the size of the plant itself, but also what’s known as the tiller number — a tiller is a shoot that emerges from the core of the plant — and the size of rice plant panicles, which are grain-bearing branch-like extensions.
Li is also well-known for having established a new breeding system through integration of biotechnology and fundamental knowledge of plant architecture and grain quality with rational molecular design, making it easier to provide large numbers of high-quality rice grains.
And a balanced number of tillers is necessary, not too much, not too few. Big panicles and big grain sizes, however, create large and high-quality yields. Even the height of the plant itself can matter a great deal. “If it’s too tall, then it becomes too easy for it to fall down, then it is not very resistant to lodging,” said Li.
The genetic code of the plant is complex, and each element of the architecture is affected by numerous genes. Li and his team spent 20 years studying how many and which genes govern the molecular chain reactions that affect how the plant is ultimately built by its biology, and how those genes can be modified to get more useful plants.
Different kinds of plants are desirable in different regions as well. For example, rice farms in southern China near the Yangtze river are more able to accomodate plants with larger panicles because they get more energy-supplying sunlight, while smaller panicles are necessary in northern China where the days are shorter. In total, 28 new varieties of rice plants stemming from Li’s original research have become available in China. Those plants are grown in roughly 7 million acres of farmland in China, which grows about 28% of the world's total rice production.
Connecting genetics research and breeding
Li’s work, in a sense, built a bridge between basic and applied science. The basic research — cloning genes from rice plants and understanding their complex genetic systems — led to the important work of rice breeders who use this information to develop elite varieties of the plant for farmers to grow, showing a direct line between research that has an impact within science to research that has an impact on the lives of millions. Most of this progress stems from studies published by Li and his team in leading science journals, including Nature, Nature Genetics and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cloning provides a full map of the genetic code, which then can lead to the identification of which gene provides a plant with large panicles and a strong root system, for example.
“In China, there are probably several thousand scientists working with rice, identifying components of regulation and otherwise,” Li said. “My lab is the first lab in China to establish how to clone genes from rice. If you have this system, you can then manipulate the genes of the rice. Otherwise, you cannot identify and isolate the genes you need to explore.”
“Cloning genes is important to plant architecture,” he added. “It elucidates the genetic network that controls the rice grain yield and eating and cooking qualities. Not only do you want to produce more rice, but also you want this rice to have a good taste so people will want to eat it. Normally it’s very difficult to get the high yield and the good quality.”
Revealing the genetic code ultimately opens the gateway to the knowledge of which genes are key to producing a crop’s annual yield.
“That’s why people really want to get the gene,” said Li. “For breeders, nowadays, and for basic research scientists, all of us really wanted to have the genes, and especially for really important key genes. If you discover key genes for yield, you will get a good high-yield variety. Or you’ll try to get a good gene for quality. This is the base we are working on. Those are the key things.”
In addition to his research, Li was the Vice Minister of Agriculture in China and President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) from 2011 to 2016. He is also Professor and Principal investigator at the Institute of Genetics and Development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). He has been a TWAS Fellow since 2004, and delivered a TWAS Medal Lecture in 2006.
Lenovo (HKSE: 992) (ADR: LNVGY) is a USD50 billion global Fortune 500 company and a leader in providing innovative consumer, commercial, and enterprise technology. Its portfolio of high quality, secure products and services covers PCs (including the legendary Think and multimode YOGA brands), workstations, servers, storage, smart TVs and a family of mobile products like smartphones (including the Motorola brand), tablets and apps. Join Lenovo on LinkedIn, follow it on Facebook or Twitter (@Lenovo) or visit at www.lenovo.com.
The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – supports sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has more than 1,270 elected Fellows representing more than 100 countries; 14 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through more than three decades, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the government of Italy and essential programmatic funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). It is a programme unit of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).