Friday, January 15, 2010

An interview with Dr. Guoqing Pan - Associate Professor at Southwest University, Chongqing.

It was raining. Around us were hundreds of students, each one with an umbrella. Joanne stopped one after another asking for directions, and they smiled and shrugged, or smiled and pointed, and slowly we homed in to the the Institute of Sericulture and Systems Biology, Southwest University, Chongqing. It is a large building, looking much like any typical modern university department in the UK, but this one tucked in among high sub-tropical trees and sweeping driveways.

I'd come to see Dr Guoqing Pan. During my planning of this trip I had been monitoring the papers on sericulture coming from China in an effort to find the best place to go. I'd noticed there were several papers coming from Chongqing, and so I'd emailed a professor there, and eventually received a reply from one of his colleagues.

Dr. Guoqing had a dreadful cold. The reason he had a dreadful cold I suspect, and the thought of this frustrates me even now, was that the previous week there had been an international Symposium on the silkworm (Bombyx mori) and he'd probably picked up his cold from the other delegates. I could have easily gone. If I'd flown straight to Chongqing from Hanzhou I could have flow from conference to conference, but as it was Dr. Guoqing gave me the abstracts of the papers and I have had to content myself with looking through those, and he was kind enough to grant me an interview.

Dr. Guoqing does research on Pebrine, the disease that Louis Pasteur first isolated in the mid-nineteenth century. It afflicted French silkworm farms, frequently wiping out entire 'crops' of silkworms, and it still the scourge of silkworm farms today. The pathogen is difficult to identify and farmers need to be constantly vigilant. The usual method of identification is in the moth - and after she has laid her eggs her corpse must be examined for pebrine spores because the disease travels vertically from moth to egg. If the Pebrine spore is present all the eggs mut be destroyed. This method of inspection is laborious and difficult, so Dr. Guoqing is trying to develop an alternative method. One possibility may be through using antibodies.

Pebrine research is just part of the work of the Institute of Sericulture at Southwest University. Other interests are the general genetics of the silkworm, transgenetics and also research work on the silkworm's only food: the mulberry. It is a big department with about one hundred post-graduates. They collaborate internationally on projects - notably with Japan, the US and Australia - but one of their biggest projects is a national one called 'Project 973'. This involves eight to ten different institutes over the whole of China and the secretary of the project is based in Chongqing.

The aims of Project 973 are to find the genes involved in the production of silk in the silkworm; modify them to increase the quality and quantity of silk production and also produce coloured silk by modifying the proteins and imitating naturally coloured silks.

Dr. Guoqing was born in 1973 near to Beijing and went to university in Chongqing in 1991. In China a student applies to do a range of subjects - Dr Guoqing applied to do Economics or Food Science - but was selected to do Veterinary Science. The location is also dictated by examination results.

"But it's really hard to get into Veterinary Science," I told him, and Dr. Guoqing smiled and said he knew. "It's not the case in China," he said, "a neighbour told me that I'd never find a wife if I did veterinary science, and so I didn't want to do it."

He's happy now, though. He graduated in 1995 and then went on to study viruses in chickens at an agricultural college. He then returned in 1998, and began his work on the genomes of Pebrine in 2003 which he really enjoys and is determined to be a good teacher.

After donning plastic shoe covers to keep things clean, he showed me around his department and introduced me to a few students. It was all very similar to the laboratories I used to know in the UK - white walls, small rooms full of centrifuges, microscopes, ovens, refrigerated rooms and big white boxes housing robotic sampling systems. It was strange to suddenly find myself surrounded by such familiar things. Twenty-first century science, it seems, is much the same everywhere.