Mutual Benefit: Building a Successful Collaboration

Scientific collaboration arises in many different ways, but success requires a commitment from both sides and good personal contacts. This is amply demonstrated by the longstanding links that have developed from an initial contact between myself and Chen Jianping of the virology department at the Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences (ZAAS) in Hangzhou, China. The story began with a British man teaching English for a year at the Agricultural University in Hangzhou, who developed a friendship with one of his students, Chen Jianping. On his return to the UK in 1987 as a geography teacher, the man made some enquiries to find out if anyone in Britain was working on mosaic viruses of barley, because Chen Jianping had graduated and been appointed to work at ZAAS on this topic. The enquiries led him to Rothamsted, and I began corresponding with Chen Jianping as a result.

To investigate the opportunities for collaboration, I obtained a travel grant from the Royal Society and visited ZAAS in October 1988, and was subsequently able to invite Chen Jianping to Rothamsted for 11 months in 1989-90. During that visit, he did some productive experiments to show that barley mild mosaic virus particles could be detected within certain stages of its fungus vector, Polymyxa graminis. Such evidence had not been obtained before for a fungally transmitted plant virus. Following its publication in the UK, the work received several joint awards from the Chinese government, including a first-class Science and Technology Achievement Award from the Ministry of Agriculture. It was also selected by the State Committee for Science and Technology for one of the top 10 Science and Technology Achievement Awards for 1992, the first time that agricultural science was featured in these awards.

These awards were undoubtedly instrumental in securing a bilateral grant from the European Union (EU) International Scientific Co-operation (ISC) programme from 1994-97 to work on comparisons of virus and vector isolates in China and the UK under Framework Programme III. The awards also prompted the Chinese government to invest in a major refurbishment of the plant virology facilities at ZAAS. The refurbished laboratory was established as the national key laboratory for research on viruses with fungus vectors. As a result, not only was the quality of work at ZAAS enhanced, but students were able to travel to study in the UK and to contribute to research in Europe on a common problem. In particular, substantial progress was made in characterising a resistance-breaking isolate of one of the viruses from the UK.

In 1993, Chen Jianping was able to come to Scotland to study for a PhD. This made communication rather easier and during this time we prepared a successful application to the EU INCO programme (under Framework Programme IV). This 4-year project, which I coordinate, has a total of six partners and began in autumn 1996, by which time Chen Jianping had returned to ZAAS. The other partners in China are the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) Institute of Plant Protection and the CAAS Institute of Crop Breeding and Cultivation, both in Beijing. Those in Europe are the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee, Scotland, and the Max Planck Institut für Züchtungsforschung in Cologne, Germany.

The emphasis in this project shifted to the study of soil-borne mosaic viruses of wheat, which cause significant yield losses in both China and Europe. These diseases are extremely difficult to control, and our project has attempted to characterise the viruses and then develop reliable procedures for the genetic transformation of Chinese wheat varieties, using virus-derived sequences to confer disease resistance. On a worldwide basis, more wheat is produced (564,000 metric tons) than any other crop. The total production in China (101,000 MT), where it is second only to rice in importance, and Europe (115,000 MT) accounts for about 40% of the world total and occupies some 56 million hectares of arable land. At the start of the project it was known that at least two fungally transmitted viruses were present in both China and Europe (especially France and Italy) causing serious yield losses, but they were rather poorly characterised.

Our work has now shown that the viruses in China and Europe, although related, differ from one another and also from some of those in North America. Field experiments at several sites in China have suggested differences between sites in the response of wheat cultivars, and there appear to be different strains of the virus at Yaan (Sichuan province) and Yangzhou (Jiangsu province). The nucleotide sequences of part or all of many virus isolates from both China and Europe have been determined and some of these sequences have been used to prepare constructs for use in transformation experiments by other partners in the project. Determination of virus sequences also now opens the way to more detailed studies of virus gene function. Computer analysis of the sequences has yielded useful clues to the involvement of virus-encoded proteins in transmission by the fungus vector, and experiments are now in progress in Britain to continue this work and to examine in detail the molecular basis of virus transmission by fungi.

To date, this collaboration has yielded 19 refereed scientific papers and has generated almost 200 kb of virus sequence data that have been deposited in the international databanks. I was appointed an Honorary Professor at ZAAS in 1993 and a Member of the Scientific Committee for the refurbished laboratory in 1995. In addition to the current project, I am also assisting other PhD students in the laboratory with data analysis and with writing scientific papers. In September 1999, I was highly honoured to be one of the first recipients of a West Lake Friendship Award from the Zhejiang Provincial Government. These are designed to recognise significant contributions by foreign experts to the scientific, educational, and economic development of the province. I was able to receive this award from a representative of the government on a visit in November 1999.

It is very gratifying to know that our efforts have been appreciated by our Chinese partners, but there have also been benefits to the science here in Europe. In particular, collaboration has provided the funding and opportunity to work on viruses of importance in Europe, and to expand our efforts in basic science aimed at understanding the relationships between virus genomes and function. It has been a pleasure to work with several Chinese colleagues and the results continue to be of mutual benefit.

This article is adapted from an account that first appeared in the Institute of Arable Crops Research Report for 1999, pp. 44-47.

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