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Sowing the seeds of innovation

A conversation with Hai Ren, Director, South China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Credit: South China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Established in 1929, South China Botanical Garden (SCBG) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is one of the oldest botanical research institutions in China, and features a national nature reserve that aims to popularize botanical studies beyond its home in Guangzhou. Through its four research centres, SCBG has a strong scientific focus notably for basic research and advancing public knowledge on botany, ecology, and resource conservation. Here, SCBG Director, Hai Ren, discusses the institution’s rich heritage, distinctive achievements and sustainable growth.

Hai Ren, Director, South China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences Credit: South China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences

What are some of SCBG’s significant achievements?

Pioneering research, public education and promoting environmental preservation are central to SCBG’s vision and mission. In 1956, we established Dinghushan National Nature Reserve, China’s first nature reserve. We pioneered a zoning plan for its management, which is still in use today. Our award-winning strategies and technologies for restoring vegetation have been used across the country. By studying Southern China’s old-growth forests, we also revealed their potential as carbon sinks which led further to the establishment of a new, nonequilibrium conceptual framework to study soil carbon dynamics.

Another achievement is our breeding of economically important plants, including banana and fragrant agarwood. In the 1970s we led a project in Guangdong province to breed a new hybrid rice and helped improve its adaptability. We have successfully reproduced a new variety of rubber tree that can survive just as well in cooler areas, thus expanding its cultivation areas.

With the Institute of Botany, CAS and Kunming Institute of Botany, CAS, we also co-led the compilation of Flora of China, winning the First Class National Natural Science award in 2009.

Can you elaborate on SCBG’s research excellence?

Our expertise is built on the strength of our research across plant science, ecology and environmental science, agriculture and resource plants, as well as molecular analysis and genetic improvement. This research has led to major breakthroughs, such as rapid vegetation restoration on tropical coral islands, evaluation of carbon sequestration in China’s forest ecosystems and preservation technology for harvested fruits and vegetables.

We are looking to further expand our research in line with CAS’s broader goals of focusing on frontier science, and better meeting national strategic and economic needs. We are working to support more major research projects, expand our laboratories and field station networks, and build stronger expert teams. Using the plants within the botanical garden, we will also continue our research on biodiversity conservation, and establish models of resource collection, scientific research and development and utilization.

What are SCBG’s contributions to biodiversity?

We have a living collection of 17,000 plant taxa, with ex situ conservation of 30% of Chinese native plants. In particular, we have reintroduced 28 species of rare and endangered plants, including the flowering plant, Primulina tabacum. With these germplasm resources, we can supply almost 70% garden species native to southern China’s Greater Bay Area.

We also consult on policy-making and planning for plant conservation and sustainable use in China. Through international collaboration, our unique protection model has been promoted beyond China. An example is expanding sustainable sandalwood plantations in Cambodia and Malaysia. We led the reports on China’s implementation of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (2011-2020).

What are your strategies to strengthen SCBG’s growing team?

We focus on fostering and incentivizing our staff, while promoting international exchange. Our young researchers regularly attend overseas training, along with programmes dedicated to on-the-job learning, exchange and collaborative research. To attract scholars from abroad, we offer generous funds to establish research teams, as well as competitive packages. Researchers worldwide are also invited for exchange, in addition to year-round seminars and presentations.

How about your priorities for public outreach?

As a pioneer of popularizing botanical studies, we are keen to build our audience through diverse botanical collections and a range of themed gardens. We attract more than two million visitors a year, 10% of whom are teenagers. To further broaden our audience, we enrich flower exhibitions to improve visitor experience, organize various classes for all ages in partnership with professional institutions, and enhance educational activities for students to promote their knowledge about botany and ecology.

How do you envision SCBG’s socio-economic role in the Greater Bay Area?

As a key supplier of plants for the region, we play an important role in promoting our horticulture industry. We also support agriculture by developing new varieties of crops and other economically important plants, as well as new cultivation technologies. In addition, the discovery of active ingredients in plants and microorganisms has also promoted the development of new medicines and health products. By improving varieties, promoting large-scale cultivation and developing drug products, our R&D programs for medicinal plants have helped position SCBG as an important technological hub for innovative medicinal herbs.

Research strengths and achievements of SCBG:

Four affilied centres: Plant Science Center, Ecology & Environmental Sciences Center, Agriculture & Resource Plant Center, and Molecular Analysis and Genetic Improvement Center

Five major research areas of focus: mechanisms of biodiversity formation and evolution of evergreen broad-leaved forests in Southern China; response of evergreen broad-leaved forest ecosystems in monsoon area to climate change; development and commercialization of high-economic-value crops; crop safety based on cloning and transgenic technologies; and compilation of cultivated floa of China.

• More than 300 SCI papers are published annually, of which over 55% were published in top 30% SCI journals since 2015

Three disciplines (plant and animal sciences, ecology and environmental science, and agriculture sciences) were ranked among global top 1% in ESI between 2008 and 2018

2,628 SCI papers, 11 technological innovation platforms, 53 awards, 225 patents and 121 new cultivated varieties over the decade

The many firsts at SCBG:

1929

Chun Woon-Young founded the Institute of Agriculture and Forestry at Sun Yat-Sen University, the predecessor of SCBG, and inaugurated China’s first English-language botanical journal in the following year

1956

Published Flora of Guangzhou, China’s first book on local flora

Established Dinghushan National Nature Reserve, China’s first nature reserve

1957

Chun Woon-Young discovered and named an endangered endemic Chinese tree, Cathaya argyrophylla, or silver fir, as a ‘living fossil’

1959

Constructed China’s first ecology restoration station

1970s

Perfected the three-line hybrid rice, a high-yield crop, in collaboration with a research team from Hunan

1976

Published Guangdong Vegetation, China’s first book on local vegetation

1979

The Dinghushan National Nature Reserve joined UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB)

1980s

Commercialized the production of virus-free banana seedling using tissue culture technology, and established China’s first seedling plant with annual production capacity of 20 million seedlings

1996

Published China’s first book on ecology restoration

doi: 10.1038/d42473-019-00369-0