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Cultivating International Interest in Molecular Farming

by Jeff Worley

Last fall, Quinn Li received what he calls "the invitation of a lifetime."

"I was invited by the People's Republic of China to join 99 other Chinese Ph.D.s from around the world for a two-week conference focused on agriculture and environmental sciences," says Li, a staff scientist at UK's Tobacco and Health Research Institute (THRI). Li was the only tobacco researcher invited from the United States.Photo of Quinn Li in China

"It was clearly an honor for me to represent the University of Kentucky in China, and this was my first time back in my native country in an official capacity," Li says. About half of the conference participants were from the United States. Among other universities represented were Yale, MIT, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and UC Davis.

Li explains that this was a "moveable conference": the seven scientists in his group visited 18 different provinces and cities. They started in Henan Province in east central China, then spent six days in Yunnan in southwest China. These provinces are the major tobacco production bases in China. Yunnan Province contributes approximately 40 percent of the national tobacco taxes and profits, and 65 percent of its income is derived from the tobacco industry.

"During the visit, I went to two tobacco research institutes, one tobacco college, and three tobacco corporations," says Li. "And I gave six seminars to research professionals and students, and two reports to the governor of the Yunnan Province and the Overseas Chinese Office of the State Council."

In his talks and reports, Li says he focused mainly on the work he and other THRI researchers are doing in the field of "molecular farming"—research which utilizes the tobacco plant as a factory to make a variety of useful substances—and disease resistance in the tobacco plant. "The concept of molecular farming was new to them, and they showed a lot of interest in it," says Li.

He says the trip was exhausting but exhilarating. "One high point was meeting so many top people in agriculture around the world as well as dozens of political leaders and policymakers in China," he says.

This conference coincided with the nation's 50th anniversary celebration, and the invited guests were treated as dignitaries during the parade in Tian An Men Square. While millions of Chinese watched the live extravaganza on TV, Li's group watched it from the square itself. "Only a few thousand people were allowed to watch the parade in person, so it was clearly prestigious to be among this group," Li says.

Li came to UK from Xiamen University in southeastern China in 1991 to work toward a doctorate in plant physiology. He received his degree in 1995 and, with his newfound interest in novel uses for tobacco, he then found a home at THRI.

"THRI was highly honored by Dr. Li's invitation, and we were especially pleased that he had the unique opportunity to communicate the institute's biotechnology program to tobacco research institutes in China," says Maelor Davies, director of THRI. "We anticipate that China will become very interested in using plants like tobacco as economical, environmentally compatible production systems to help meet its ever-increasing need for a wide variety of consumer products and medicines."

Li plans to keep in touch with several of the scientists he met on this trip, especially those Chinese scientists interested in the possibility of future collaborations on the molecular farming of tobacco. "Right now, the interest there is focused on disease resistance of plants, but there is also a lot of enthusiasm for future, novel uses of tobacco," he says.

Li was also pleased to dispel an image held by some in China about the University of Kentucky. "A lot of people there have only one image of Kentucky, and that's Kentucky Fried Chicken—KFC has invaded almost all major cities in China," Li says. "So when people hear 'University of Kentucky,' some of them think 'the University of Kentucky Fried Chicken.' I was pleased to let them know that we are very separate organizations."