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Chemist, bioengineer honored for breakthroughs

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | China Daily | Updated: 2018-01-09 07:09
Vice-Premier Liu Yandong (front row, center) joins winners of the State Natural Science Awards for 2017 in Beijing on Monday. [Photo by ZHOU WEIHAI/FOR CHINA DAILY]

China has two winners of the annual First Prize of the State Natural Science Award for 2017, a testimony to the nation's growing research capabilities in fundamental science, experts said on Monday.

It is the first time in 12 years that China has two winners within a single year of the nation's highest honor for major scientific breakthroughs in fundamental research. The last time was in 2006, according to data from the Office of State Science and Technology Awards.

This year's winners are chemist Tang Benzhong and bioengineer Li Jiayang.

Tang discovered aggregation-induced emission-a chemical phenomenon in which a special type of luminous agent becomes brighter the more it groups together. The discovery revolutionized luminescent biomarkers for material science, medicine, cancer diagnosis, electronics and other fields.

Li discovered the molecular mechanism that decides the quality and yield of rice, which allowed scientists to create an ideal rice crop that is nutritious and tasty and produces a high yield.

"The first-prize winners not only must have groundbreaking scientific achievements, but also must have strong and lasting global impact," said Chen Zhiming, the deputy director of the office.

The standard for the first prize is so rigorous that typically there is only one winner per year, said Chen. Since 1991, there have been 12 occasions on which there was no first-prize winner, including a three-year drought from 2010 to 2012, according to the office's data.

"But this year's first-prize winners lived up to their name," said Chen. "These achievements are the result of China's growing effort and devotion to fundamental research."

After the discovery of aggregation-induced emission in 2001, scientists from more than 1,100 institutes in 60 countries have been studying the strange effect and producing new material, medicine and diagnostic tools, said Tang.

Li's discovery of the secrets behind high-quality, high-yield rice has propelled China to become one of the world leaders in agricultural biology research, with close collaborations with Russia, Japan and Southeast Asian countries, Li said.

"The new discovery might be the beginning of a new agricultural revolution," said Li. "Farmers can reliably produce high-quality and high-yielding rice to protect the nation's food security as its population continues to grow."

Phil Coates, a chemical engineer from the United Kingdom and the winner of the 2017 International Science and Technology Cooperation Award-China's highest honor for foreign scientists, said that in the past decade, China has put tremendous effort into fundamental research, as well as the commercialization of science findings to fuel the economy.

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