CEPAMS Newton Fund: Sino-UK excellence with impact on the Sustainable Development Goals

Lead Research Organisation: John Innes Centre
Department Name: Directorate

Abstract

The John Innes Centre's track record in China is very significant indeed. Just one year after Deng Xiaoping's opening reforms were initiated in 1978, the first Chinese scientist to arrive at JIC was Zhihong Xu. Professor Xu went on to be President of Peking University and Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Since that time, hundreds of Chinese scientists have received their training at JIC. Today, the very best Chinese scientists maintain their close association to JIC. Their work has had real impact on China's food security and health.

In 2014, JIC established the Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Sciences (CEPAMS) with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. CEPAMS has been a scientific and diplomatic success story. Building on JIC's long association with China, CEPAMS has seeded excellent, productive research collaborations, established new, world-leading laboratories and nurtured the Sino-UK bilateral relationship.

This new project builds on past success to launch a second phase focussed on the impact of CEPAMS on the sustainable development goals in the developing world. The second phase of CEPAMS will involve collaborative research projects between JIC and CAS scientists plus dedicated CEPAMS laboratories in Beijing and Shanghai. The work of both will be explicitly linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and underpinned by an emerging Africa-Britain-China initiative.

One theme of research in this new project will explore the anti-cancer properties of some plants used in traditional Chinese medicine (Skullcaps). A better understanding of these plants could lead to improved efficacy (health outcomes) of traditional medicines and also improved commercial impact of these medicines on the Chinese economy. In addition to JIC and CAS, this theme will also recruit the expertise of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to explore medicinal plants in other developing countries and involve African partners.

Another theme will look at the close association between plants and microbes and how this association can be both harmful and beneficial. A better understanding of these associations could lead to future growth in crop yields, reductions in crop disease and fewer chemical treatments for crops (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides). The research will look crops that are of growing importance in China (and other developing countries) including oats, tomatoes and kiwi fruit

Planned Impact

This project will address several sustainable development goals:

SDG1 (no poverty)

The project will aid Chinese (and wider developing country) economic development by providing inputs to economic impact from farming and from traditional medicines. These inputs not only provide impact through direct commercial applicability of improved crops and medicines but also impact though healthier, more productive citizens who have access to an adequate, nutritious diet and affordable medicines.

SDG2 (zero hunger)

This project will protect and promote Chinese food security (and that of wider developing countries) by providing inputs to improved crops and agricultural practices. Depending on the exact portfolio of research themes chosen, crops with increased yield, improved nutrition, improved disease resistance and improved drought resistance might emerge from this project. An improved understanding of plant-microbe interactions will also improve agricultural practices leading to increased agricultural productivity.

SDG3 (good health and wellbeing)

This project will contribute to the health and wellbeing of Chinese citizens (and that of those from wider developing countries) by promoting the application and efficacy of traditional Chinese medicines - either as traditionally prescribed or as presented in the form of isolated pharmaceuticals. This project could (depending on the research themes chosen) also provide inputs to more nutritious diets, for example through the biofortification of Chinese staple foods.

SDG17 (partnerships for the goals)

CEPAMS is the most advanced Sino-UK collaboration in the life sciences. This project will continue to provide a beacon for success in the bilateral relationship as it might be applied to the sustainable development goals, especially for the important link with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Publications

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Description This project builds on past success to launch a second phase focussed on the impact of CEPAMS on the sustainable development goals in the developing world. The second phase of CEPAMS involves collaborative research projects between JIC and CAS scientists plus dedicated CEPAMS laboratories in Beijing and Shanghai.

Research Findings

One theme of research in this project has explored the properties of some plants used in traditional Chinese medicine (Skullcaps). A better understanding of these plants could lead to improved efficacy (health outcomes) of traditional medicines and also improved commercial impact of these medicines on the Chinese economy. Skullcaps are important in Chinese Traditional Medicine where preparations of dried roots ('Huang Qin') are used for liver and lung complaints including complementary cancer treatments. We have published a high-quality reference genome sequence for this plant. This genome sequence will facilitate the development of tools for enhancing bioactive productivity by metabolic engineering in microbes or by molecular breeding in plants. The project team published an important review in February 2021, looking at the complementary between Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine to establish whether benefits for patients can be derived by combination therapies. This review has set the frame for outputs promoting therapeutics developed from Traditional Chinese Medicinal Plants. These are being developed for extracts from both Scutellaria baicalensis (Huang Qin; ??) and Scutellaria barbata. (Ban Zhi Lian; ???). Scutebarbatine A is the major diterpenoid, produced in specialized large, peltate trichomes on leaves of S. barbata. It induces dose-dependent apoptosis, specifically in cancer cells.

Another theme of the project is looking at the close association between plants and microbes and how this association can be both harmful and beneficial. A better understanding of these associations could lead to future growth in crop yields in China, reductions in crop disease and fewer chemical treatments for crops (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides). Two papers have been published which explore the important interaction between plants and the microbes surrounding their roots. These links between plant genotype and root microbiota will inform breeding strategies to improve rice crops in China.

A third theme looks at the important issue of TB treatment. TB is a devastating disease that has a significant burden, in terms of mortality and morbidity, in developing countries. Moreover, developing countries are often restricted in terms of costs in accessing current therapy. TB is a serious problem in China (~1 million new cases each year), with MDR (multi-drug resistant) TB being a particular problem (~60,000 cases notified in 2015 in pulmonary TB patients). A CEPAMS collaboration is exploring the enzyme DNA gyrase, a target for TB therapy. New discoveries, published in 2021, improve our understanding of how TB resists drug treatments which target DNA gyrase by deploying pentapeptide-repeat proteins (PRPs).

Non-Research Findings

The collaboration on Traditional Chinese Medicine goes from strength to strength. In the past year, there has been a UK-China workshop on this subject and the launch of a new journal, Medicinal Plant Biology, that aims to build the field in this area. MPD has just started accepting submissions (February 2022).

CEPAMS aim to build Africa-Britain-China links is also thriving despite the pandemic with a secondment to JIC of a CAS employee from Africa (on medicinal plants) and preliminary work with Addis Ababa University on the African orphan crop, Enset.

Further boosting CEPAMS' impact in DAC list countries, links have been strengthened in South Asia within two of the projects. In the iron biofortification of wheat project, links with both India (NABI) and Pakistan (NIBGE) have the potential for great impact. Students from both countries will spend time at JIC on this project. In the TB project, the already strong links with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) will be broadened through a lecture tour of India funded by the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Exploitation Route Too early to say (the award is still active)
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

URL https://www.cepams.org/
 
Description An important pathway to impact for this project is through the health/medical potential of natural products in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Although still early in the project, in terms of impact, new links are being built with the TCM community in China, new data is being shared with that community for use in their work and new collaborations for the future established. Experimental data is encouraging and we are starting to discuss therapeutics developed from the Traditional Chinese Medicinal Plants Scutellaria baicalensis (Huang Qin; ??) and Scutellaria barbata. (Ban Zhi Lian; ???). Another pathway is through strengthening Chinese science and Chinese scientists. This building of capacity has taken many forms within CEPAMS, including world-class leadership training for CEPAMS Group Leaders. CEPAMS adopts a thought leadership role when it comes to gender impact. CEPAMS worked with UKRI in China on a 2022 campaign to highlight the role of women researchers.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description COVID 19 Grant Extension Allocation John Innes Centre
Amount £1,382,355 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/V520627/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2020 
End 09/2021
 
Description Fertiliser on-farm decision tool: Optimising the use and reducing the environmental burden of fertigation
Amount £1,189,801 (GBP)
Funding ID 105140 
Organisation Innovate UK 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2019 
End 06/2022
 
Description MOST grant to Jeremy Murray: Novel Flavaonoid Signalling Loops for Plant Beneficial Interactions
Amount ¥1,100,000 (CNY)
Organisation Ministry of Science and Technology 
Sector Public
Country China
Start 01/2020 
End 12/2022
 
Description Newton Advanced Fellowship for Dr Evangelos Tatsis: "Scutellaria Anticancer Metabolites - SCAM"
Amount £74,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NAF\R2\192001 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2019 
End 11/2021
 
Description Newton Bhaba
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 08/2022
 
Description CAS-JIC Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Science 
Organisation Chinese Academy of Sciences
Department Institute of Genetics & Developmental Biology
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Collaborator Contribution This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Impact This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Start Year 2019
 
Description CAS-JIC Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Science 
Organisation Chinese Academy of Sciences
Department Shanghai Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Collaborator Contribution This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Impact This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Start Year 2019
 
Description CAS-JIC Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Science 
Organisation Chinese Academy of Sciences
Country China 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Collaborator Contribution This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Impact This collaboration is the subject of the entire grant.
Start Year 2019
 
Description CEPAMS - Addis Ababa University Collaboration 
Organisation Addis Ababa University
Country Ethiopia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution In Ethiopia, the world's largest historic recipient of food aid, the indigenous banana relative enset (Ensete ventricosum) is threatened by multiple pests and pathogens whilst providing the staple starch source for 20 million people. Foremost among these is Xanthomonas Wilt of enset (EXW), caused by Xanthomonas vasicola pv. musacearum (Xvm), a globally important disease of bananas (Musa sp.) that likely originated in enset. As a prelimary study, JIC has agreed to screen Pseudomonas isolate libraries for biocontrol strains against the major enset pathogen, Xanthomonas vasicola pv. musacearum.
Collaborator Contribution Background on enset.
Impact Preliminary data only at this stage, in preparation for separate grant application.
Start Year 2021
 
Description CEPAMS collaboration with the Indian Department of Biotechnology's National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute. 
Organisation National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute
Country India 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution High iron wheat project.
Collaborator Contribution RNA-seq related to high-iron wheat project.
Impact RNA-seq
Start Year 2019
 
Title Toolkits for Integrated Genetic and Evolutionary Research 
Description TIGER is an integrated toolkit facilitating research analysis on genetics and evolution. It combines efficiency and flexibility to realize high-performance computation of various types of research analysis. TIGER is a java based program, which is divided into two major packages, "infra" and "app". The package "infra" means infrastructure. The goal is to develop extremely efficient code/class/packages for low-level bioinformatic computation, for example, table, sequence, DNA, alignment, genotype, popgen utilities, bit operation/storage/conversion, hyperthreading IO, self-structured data storage, etc. The package "app" means application. The goal is to develop various flexible and high-level bioinformatic applications, which run on "infra." It is like apps run on operating systems in iOS and take advantage of the well-designed system. Currently, available apps include SNP calling from whole genome sequencing, genotyping, kmer analysis, RNA-seq profiling, etc. TIGER will be developed in a long-term basis and new apps will be added in. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2019 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact None as yet. 
 
Description A second workshop on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A second workshop on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), organized by CAS-JIC Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Science (CEPAMS), was held virtually on 9 and 10 January 2022. More than 80 researchers and students from plant science, botany, taxonomy, chemistry, synthetic biology and clinical sciences attended the interdisciplinary workshop.

TCM has a long history in China and is gradually becoming more widely recognized by the world, said Professor XU Zhihong, a CAS Member and the former President of Peking University, in his opening speech. His view was that the internationalization of TCM will be the trend in the future.

"Due to the rapid development of synthetic biology, and research on genomics and secondary metabolism of TCM plants, crucial secondary metabolites or natural products with medicinal importance can now be produced sustainably and efficiently.

"The combination of basic plant research and pharmacological research of TCM will make new discoveries in this field, which will enhance the well-being of all mankind." XU said.

The attendees came from 13 Chinese and British universities or institutions, including Peking University, Shanghai University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Sichuan University, Southwest University, Capital Medical University, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, CAS Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Science, Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica and Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology of CAS, as well as the John Innes Centre (JIC), Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and the University of East Anglia in the UK.

During the two-day workshop, participants discussed TCM research advances and progress in understanding secondary metabolism and natural product production in medicinal plants.

They agreed on the need for TCM to be sustainable as its use grows globally and discussed different ways to scale up production including using biotechnology to boost production in microbes or using plants instead of microbes to generate the active ingredients of interest. They explored the artificial distinction made between TCM and other forms of medicine and how combinations of different therapies might be optimal in future.

The workshop established a platform to connect British and Chinese scientists in this field to foster substantive cooperation and to establish long-term friendly relations. This will promote the development of TCM around the world and for global public good.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.cepams.org/cepams-organizes-sino-uk-workshop-to-promote-traditional-chinese-medicine-res...
 
Description BBC Radio Four, Inside Science, "UK Science post Brexit; GMOs vs Gene Editing regulation" 14 January 2021 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact CEPAMS investigator Janneke Balk appeared on Radio 4 to discuss her work (in collaboration with CEPAMS colleagues) on high iron varieties of wheat.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000r4w9
 
Description BBC World News, Follow the Food, Series 2, Episode 2 "Seeds of Life" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact CEPAMS researcher Catherine Jacott appeared on BBC World News to talk about the global threat to wheat yields posed by mildew.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/follow-the-food/
 
Description CEPAMS Science Communication Workshop for CEPAMS scientists working in Beijing or Shanghai 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The JIC Communications and Engagement Team ran a two-day Science Communication Workshop for postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers who work in the CEPAMS laboratories in Beijing or Shanghai.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description CEPAMS Workshop on Traditional Chinese Medicine 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Mao Zedong said that "Chinese medicine is a great treasure house and should be diligently explored and improved upon"

On 12 January 2020, researchers and innovators from China and the UK met to discuss their ongoing effort to explore and improve traditional Chinese medicine. The workshop, held under the aegis of the Sino-UK Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Sciences (CEPAMS) included the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, the Capital Medical University, the CAS Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, the CAS Centre for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences and the John Innes Centre.

Delegates discussed the challenges facing traditional Chinese medicine including the availability of high-quality raw materials to industry, constraints on land use and the evidence base accessible to practitioners. Delegates also discussed the huge opportunities offered by research and innovation, including better understanding of the production of natural products in medicinal herbs, the improvement of medicinal plants and the possibility of synthesising active compounds industrially.

In the spirit of Chairman Mao's words in 1958, UK delegates were warned not to equate "traditional" with conservatism - if the full potential of traditional Chinese medicine is to be unleashed globally, it must be continually improved upon. The President of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Xu Anlong, gave an uplifting keynote address at the workshop, telling delegates that their efforts to decode traditional Chinese medicine could have great impact on the health and well-being of the Chinese population and across the globe.

Improvements in, and exploitation of, traditional chinese medicine (and natural products arising from medicinal plants) is an important part of the pathway to impact for CEPAMS. This workshop exposed the work of CEPAMS to the TCM community which is much closer to the clinical potential of CEPAMS work. This workshop brought the two communities together in way that will foster closer collaboration in future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.cepams.org/exploring-the-treasure-house/
 
Description CEPAMS showcase with key industrial stakeholder 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A showcase of CEPAMS research and innovation activity presented to the global head of technology integration of a major industrial stakeholder.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description International Day of Women & Girls in Science 2022 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Work with UKRI China to celebrate International Day of Women & Girls in Science 2022. Included a live Weibo chat (in Chinese) and professionally produced video highlighting the role of women scientists in CEPAMS.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://twitter.com/UKRI_China/status/1492021051181703174
 
Description New Scientist 16 January 2021 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Comments provided to New Scientist article on the potential for gene editing in crops ("One potential use of gene editing is to improve the iron content of white flour, says Janneke Balk at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. In the UK, the law requires that white flour must contain a minimum amount of iron, so the iron is added artificially. Balk's lab is exploring ways to create high-iron wheat by gene editing"),
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.newscientist.com/issue/3317/
 
Description Secrets of Soil 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An internationally acclaimed artist, Henry Driver, has created an interactive digital artwork 'Secrets of Soil' taking inspiration from microbial research here at the John Innes Centre. Henry is a young artist based in Suffolk who has shown work across the world and in galleries such as Tate Liverpool and the Barbican.

He was commissioned by BBC Arts and Arts Council England to create a digital artwork, "I wanted to try to capture some of the wonder I feel when I read about soil and the life that it contains". His interactive artwork is an ever-changing landscape of fungi, bacteria and other microscopic organisms and plant material, and shows how nourishing life in the soil can help the fight against climate change. To learn more about the soil and microbes that inhabit it Henry met with some of CEPAMS' world-leading researchers in microbial science, who study many different microbes from multiple perspectives.

"It was such an amazing experience speaking to all the researchers. It had such a big impact on me. However it took a while to work out how to visualise so many different areas of research, and how to make them seem alive", reflects Henry. "My initial idea was to make 3D models and then use cut-outs of the research imagery but that didn't seem to work so well. So, I used colours from them or made similar textures. Seeing the fluorescence in some images Maria showed me inspired some of the colours used in the work."



Despite the challenge of so much information, Maria points out the success of the work, "It's a tremendous effort that Henry has brought so many aspects together".

"It was so exciting because when we're looking at the particular microorganism we work on we don't always see or think about the other microorganisms in the soil. It was stimulating to see representation of a much bigger picture and potential interactions between microbes," says Cat.

Along with realising how much life is in the soil, Henry was also struck by how much remains to be discovered, "I found it surprising how much we don't know about the soil."

Cat comments on the parallels with scientific practice, "That happens for me too, from a scientific point of view. Sometimes you assume a concept is well-known or must have been researched before and then you start to look into the literature, and you realise actually there's so much we still don't know."

"There's lots of topics like that like root exudates, about which we really don't know much in depth yet. It's going to take some years before we get a good grasp on it and can act on it," explains Maria.

Another challenge Henry faced was how to convey our impact as humans on the soil, "I wanted to think about how we affect the soil, about intensive agriculture and where we can go from there. That was actually the most difficult part of the work."

Commenting on the work, CEPAMS researcher, Dewei Wu says, "To see artwork illustrate the rhizosphere space from an artist's view is amazing and inspiring".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1gbmnLVfKyJjdCd1VBVWlc6/new-artwork-reveals-theres-more-to...