For a long time, people in the northwest China have known to make use of the plateau terrain to crave houses to dwell. Such wise housing is simple and durable, and its inside is warm in winter and cool in summer. To date, these caves can still be seen in provinces like Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Ningxia, etc.
At the southeast foot of Wutai Mountain next to NWAFU’s north campus sits a row of famous caves, too. In the early years after the college was built, Mr. Yu Youren and other personnel used to work there, and therefore, these caves were once called Yu’s Cave (Yu Yao). The caves later become faculty apartments, and in the end of the 1970s, one of them became a lab of College of Plant Protection. But no one would know that this cave could bring out two academicians of Chinese Academy of Engineering.
Li Zhenqi: Using cave as greenhouse and targeting the “lair” of wheat stripe rust
Li Zhenqi and Kang Zhensheng did experiments in the cave lab
China underwent a national wide wheat stripe rust in 1950. Wheat suffering from the disease would have blister rusts on leaves, leaf sheaths, and stems. As a parasitic pathogen, wheat stripe rust would loot nutrition from the wheat, reduce the plant’s photosynthesis, and weaken the plant’s development.
That year, China lost 6 billion kilograms of wheat, which is by estimation the same with the total amount of grain levies in the same year’s summer and could support 17 million people for 1 year. Wheat stripe rust, therefore, became the most severe disease for wheat production in China. Some experts even believe that every one piece of bread in three was lost because of the disease.
At that time, Li Zhenqi was 28 and just completed his first-year teaching in the university after graduating from the Department of Plant Protection. In that year, he cooperated with Lu Duanyi, former plant protection expert of Shaanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and young researchers including Liu Hanwen, and together they joined the national cooperation council of wheat stripe rust specialized research and protection. With six years’ hard work, Li Zhenqi grasped the general features of the pathogen and published the history-making paper Preliminary Study of Wheat Stripe Disease’s Occurrence Rule in Shaanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai, which set a solid foundation for wheat stripe rust research in China.
In 1956, Bima No.1, the famous stripe rust resistance high yield variety, gradually lost its resistance to the disease. Several years later, many plants again were infected, and China was compelled to renew the variety. Facing the major issue of production, Li Zhenqi led his team to a new battle. They shuttled back and forth between the basement in winter and Taibai mountain in summer, and only had five solid months for experiement. “Cave is warm in winter and cool in summer. Isn’t it a thermostat already?”
Supported by the university and the province, Li Zhenqi turned the cave into a cryogenic laboratory, and the outside a 200 km2 glasshouse as the room temperature laboratory. The entrance to the cave hung a plate: Plant Immunoassay Laboratory. Since then, there were at least months per year that accommodated research experiment.
In this peculiar lab, Li Zhenqi and his team identified that the new virulent pathogen was the cause of the disabled resistance, and that Longnan, the key region of lost resistant, was the main area where stripe rust could easily vary and become aggravate. With these findings, he targeted the “lair” again and improved the comprehensive prevention technology system. By conducting research on the disease cause and its countermeasures, the team implemented treatment measures in Longnan area and retrieved total production worth 2.269 billion yuan.
In 1997, Li Zhenqi was elected as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. The cave lab also became famous.
Kang Zhensheng: Taking over the job and locating the root cause
Kang Zhensheng instructed students to observe wheat stripe rust in the cave lab
In January, 1982, Kang Zhensheng, who graduated from our university’s undergraduate program of plant protection and was enrolled by the postgraduate program, first entered the cave lab with his supervisor Li Zhenqi. Since then, the cave lab became the base for the teacher and student to lubricate wheat stripe rust and fight against the disease.
Through reconstruction and extension, the lab was able to open all year long. On top of basic research on the disease, the lab could also evaluate the wheat stripe rust pathogen population’s genetic structure, classify stripe rust race, and identify stripe rust resistant wheat variety. This economical and environmentally friendly cave lab received high praises from the experts from home and abroad who called the lab the only natural lab in the world.
Till this day, Professor Li Zhensheng and his team still work in the cave lab from time to time. They only use the State Key Laboratory of Crop Stress Biology for Arid Areas when it comes to mechanism research.
Kang Zhensheng took the interaction between pathogenic fungus and wheat host as the main direction, and tried to make breakthrough in wheat stripe rust from the perspectives of histology, cytology, molecular cytology, and molecular biology, etc. He had been thinking about the root cause of the ongoing stripe and its variants in the northwest China. After taking over the work from his supervisor, Kang Zhensheng led the team to consistent research on wheat stipe rust.
In 2010, American scientists found that barberry was infected with stipe rust through lab inoculation. Although the conclusion stated that barberry did not paly a part in the sexual reproduction and disease epidemiology of wheat stripe rust, this research received high attention from Kang Zhensheng.
Are there any naturally infected barberries? Is wheat stripe rust isolatable from the infected barberries? Does stripe rust’s sexual reproduction has anything to do with the varied virulence? Do all these have anything to do with disease in the farmland? With these questions in mind, Kang Zhengsheng launched a wealth of field investigations and follow-up surveys in Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan to collect the evidence of wheat stripe rust on barberries in the natural conditions. Through advanced experiment technology, the team reached a significant finding: sexual reproduction is the main approach for varied wheat stripe rust, and the prime suspect of the influential disease is exactly the wild barberries, on which the stripe rust would develop the next generation to affect the new wheat variety.
In 2015, the fourth edition of Agricultural Plant Pathology rewrote the life history and the disease cycle of wheat stripe rust, and added its sexual reproduction and systematic circulation. Soon after that, Kang Zhensheng’s team was invited by the editorial office of Annual Review of Phytopathology to write a review article about wild barberry’s role in wheat stripe rust’s disease epidemiology and pathogen variation, which aroused worldwide attention. Academician and professor Robert McIntosh of Australian Academy of Sciences pointed out that this is a milestone discovery in the history of wheat stripe rust research.
In 2016, China Association for Science and Technology awarded the prize of National Excellent Scientist to professor Kang Zhensheng. In May, 2017, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, China Association for Science and Technology, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council jointly awarded professor Kang Zhensheng the award of National Innovation Top Prize.
20 years later after 1997, on November 27th, 2017, professor Kang Zhensheng was elected as the academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering.
Translated by: Zhao Rui
Proofread by: Yan Xianhui