Prominent animal-cloning researcher sentenced to 12 years in prison

One goat in livestock at Kashgar Xinjiang province China.

Li Ning's team team engineered goats to produce a protein found in human milk.Credit: Getty

A Chinese court has sentenced leading animal-cloning researcher Li Ning to 12 years in prison. The ruling comes more than 5 years after he was arrested for allegedly embezzling millions in research funding. Li’s former assistant, Zhang Lei, also received a sentence, of more than 5 years in prison.

On 3 January, a court in Jilin Province found that Li, formerly a researcher at the China Agricultural University in Beijing and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), had stolen 34.1 million yuan (US$4.9 million) in research grants between July 2008 and February 2012, and invested the money in his own companies, according to Xinhua, China’s state news agency. The grants were linked to several ‘mega’ research projects. The court found that Zhang had helped Li to embezzle the money. The court also ordered Li to pay a fine of 3 million yuan, and Zhang was fined 200,000 yuan.

During the hearing on 30 December, Zhang admitted to the charges against him, according to Xinhua. However, Li denied stealing the money, and said that he had invested unused grant funding with the intention of using it to support research in future years, according to the Chinese newspaper Economic Observer. At the time of Li’s arrest, grant money was distributed late in the year with the requirement that it be spent by the year end or be returned to the government. Li’s lawyer did not respond to Nature’s request for comment about the court’s sentence. Some Chinese media are reporting that Li is likely to appeal.

Li was one of the nation’s most famous scientists, thanks to his work on animal cloning and genetically modified animals. His team engineered goats to express an enzyme from earthworms1, and cows2 to express a human milk protein, in their milk. Before being arrested, he was a chief scientist for China’s mega research project on cloning and genetic modification in animals.

Li was arrested in 2014, and received a two-day hearing in August 2015. Since then, he has been in prison, waiting for a second hearing, which was finally held two weeks ago. In December 2018, 15 members of the CAE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences submitted a petition to the President of the Supreme People’s Court of China, urging the court to finalize the long-delayed ruling of Li’s case. The letter also praised his research achievements.

Li was one of several scientists at Chinese universities who were arrested in 2014 for misusing research grants. Some of the accused pleaded guilty to the charges against them, others were later released without charge.

Research-funding policies and regulations became more flexible in around 2016, and institutions are now allowed to keep unused grants for other research. For some grants, chief investigators also have more discretion over how they spend their budget. Sun Yutao, who studies science policy at Dalian University of Technology, says that previous research-funding management was too rigid and that he is glad the rules are now more flexible.

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 14 January 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Li Ning’s team engineered goats to produce a human milk protein in their milk. In fact, the goats produced an earthworm enzyme. The earlier version also gave an incomplete citation for that work, and omitted the citation for the paper on cow-milk engineering.


  1. 1.

    Hu, R. , Zhang, S., Liang, H., Li, N. & Tu, C. Protein Expr. Purif. 37, 83–88 (2004).

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Yang, B. et al. PLoS ONE 6, e17593 (2011).

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

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