Guangzhou, capital city of the Guangdong province and China's fourth most populous city, is a dynamic metropolis on the southern coast. It attracts more than 150 million tourists and business travellers every year. And, because of heavy human traffic and subtropical climate — compounded by the popularity of live animal markets and a local penchant for wild meat, Guangzhou regularly experiences outbreaks of infectious disease, most recently severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS; 2002–3), H1N1 influenza (swine flu; 2009) and dengue fever (2014).

This propensity for disease provides opportunities for new research. In November 2014, the Zhongshan School of Medicine, part of Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU), held its first symposium on dengue fever control using Wolbachia — a bacterium that infects mosquitoes and stops the dengue virus from replicating. Researchers hope that a collaborative effort between China, Australia and the United States will lead to safe, low-cost and environmentally sound methods for eradicating the disease. Guangzhou will conduct its first field trial of the technique next year.

SYSU is Guangzhou's leader. Last year it contributed to 158 articles, accounting for 47% of the city's WFC. Qinfen Zhang co-authored an article on the protein structure of a dengue virion in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Two-thirds of SYSU's output is in chemistry, and there are three major contributing researchers from SYSU's school of chemistry and chemical engineering. Jiepeng Zhang co-authored three articles on metal-organic frameworks, a class of porous composite materials that have wide-ranging applications from catalysis to water decontamination. Chengyong Su and Hsiuyi Chao each published two articles (WFC = 4): Su wrote about metal-organic frameworks for use in gas adsorption, while Chao's were on metal complexes for use in luminescent sensors and cell imaging. “The school has provided us with great experimental facilities, but the financial support has been limited,” says Chao. “SYSU still has much to learn from the world's top universities.”

From the school of physics and engineering, Biao Wang and Baojun Li each published three wholly authored articles. “We have developed fibre optic probes for use in the non-invasive control of microbes,” says Li. “Our light-based technology has implications for unblocking clots and manipulating single cells in blood vessels.”

South China University of Technology (SCUT) also has a strong focus on chemistry. Huanfeng Jiang from the school of chemistry and chemical engineering is responsible for half of SCUT's chemistry WFC, with 16 articles on metal-catalysed organic synthesis. From the same school, Fei Huang published two articles on polymer solar cells. “Our polymer solar cells have high energy conversion efficiency, even at high thickness,” says Huang. “Thick solar cells are a lot easier to make, so this will lower the requirements for large-scale production.”

The focus of Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health (GIBH) is medical research, so its index output is split between chemistry and life science. It also has the lowest ratio of AC to FC, indicating that many of its papers are authored by its own scientists. Duanqing Pei, the dean of GIBH, is the most prolific contributor, with six articles on novel techniques for reprogramming somatic cells (WFC = 6). Also notable are Qiang Zhu from GIBH's State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Diseases, who published four articles on organic synthesis, and Lingwen Zeng from the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology, also with four articles, on biosensors.

The South China Sea Institute of Oceanology (SCSIO) is a Chinese Academy of Sciences institute devoted to marine research. Ten of its 18 articles are in earth and environmental sciences, representing 43% of the city's output in this field. Jianhua Ju from the Key Laboratory of Tropical Marine Bio-resources and Ecology was the lead author on three, about the biosynthesis of marine alkaloids by bacteria. “The deep sea is full of undiscovered metabolites that can be used against antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” he says.