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Prof. Zhao Shuhong:An Eminent Female Scientist from HZAU

Pork sustains people’s livelihood.

China is the biggest producer of live pigs and the biggest consumer of pork. In 2022, the country recorded a number of 700 million live pigs ready for market. The pig industry is closely related to physical well-being and livelihood, and the national economy.

“The key to China’s food security is the fine breeds.” Prof. Zhao, a pioneering female scientist on pig genomics, is driven by her patriotism. She has persistently explored the mysteries of genes and deciphered genetic codes.

Braving “no man’s land” in research, Zhao and her team broke up the foreign technological monopolies and injected Chinese power into China’s live pig industry. It has ensured the safety of the industry and the pork supply for people, thereby strengthening the health of the Chinese people.

Fine breeds empower the sufficiency of pork

Various adorable piggy ornaments can be found on Zhao’s desk. She could truly derive great pleasure from pigs after the three-decade research on pigs.

Zhao recalled her childhood in Hebei Province: “We were always hungry, for corn and sorghum noodles were the staple food. Rice and flour were scarce, and pork was a luxury at that time.”

“My lifelong dedication is to keep Chinese people well fed.” Zhao embarked on university life, majoring in animal science and technology.

In 1992, after completing her master degree, Zhao joined HZAU and specialized in research on pig breeding.

“Despite that China is a leading producer of pigs, there was still a huge gap between our pig breeding efforts and those of developed nations in 20th century.”

Zhao explained that, compared to modern breeds, local pig breeds grow slowly and accumulate larger amounts of fat. The variations in meat production between two pig breeds can be attributed to genomic differences in breeding.

In 1998, Zhao received an accelerated promotion to associate professor. Soon, she played a pivotal role in establishing the first animal molecular biology and breeding laboratory at HZAU. The professor succeeded in pioneering the technique of genetic mapping for single sperm typing in pigs in the not well-equipped research lab. Her team was the sole university team to join in the International Swine Genome Sequencing Consortium in 2009.

In the 1990s, domestic pig breed selection was based on pedigree and phenotypic data, while molecular marker-assisted selection had been adopted abroad. She expressed her concern: “selective breeding is a ceaseless race. If we lag behind, how can we possibly compete with others?”

“To fulfill the goal of producing superior breeds, we must prioritize leading-edge breeding technologies.” Zhao said in a firm tone.

Hard Work in the Right Direction

“It is our imperative to overcome challenges and bottlenecks to serve the greater good. Being a real scientist, you must be patient and brave in the face of difficulties, not be fond of the limelight, and never give up.” remarked Prof. Zhao Shuhong.

She led the team to create a pig genome map of gene promoters, enhancers, open chromatin regions, and three-dimensional genome, encompassing the most extensive breed information and tissue types. The effort unveiled potential regulatory mechanisms influencing pig phenotypic variation and laid a solid foundation for enhancing the efficiency of pig genomic breeding.

“Even though we have deciphered the genetic ‘codes’ of pigs, we still need to make the gene target detection more efficient before its application,” said Zhao. In order to break up the foreign technological monopoly in high-throughput detection of pig genes and equip the Chinese pig industry with our domestic ‘pig chips’, Zhao and her determined team have devoted nearly a decade to their endeavors.

“At the beginning, our team struggled to produce liquid chips with satisfactory accuracy,” introduced Mr. Fu Liangliang, a distinguished post-doc of Zhao’s team. “Despite the immense efforts from numerous doctoral students, a solution to it still remained elusive even until their graduation.”

Zhao’s encouragement to her team members echoed with determination, “As long as a glimmer of hope remains, we will never surrender. It is a make or break for us. ”

The team were consistently uplifted by the HZAU’s leadership, who emphasized, “No matter what setbacks you encounter, we will always back your ongoing research.”

 Scientific?progress?is?built?on?failure. The researchers persisted in their pursuit without fear of failure. Finally, the team achieved a remarkable progress in 2018, leading to a significant enhancement in capture accuracy.

Zhao’s team has been committed to innovating the gene technology and revitalizing the Chinese pig breeding industry. In recent years, they upgraded the chip to work on big data computation. Finally, they have succeeded in creating a cutting-edge, homemade liquid gene chip and a comprehensive genomic breeding platform.

With a sense of pride, Zhao proclaimed, “Our self-developed genomic breeding technology has elevated breeding efficiency.”

In 2022, Zhao and her team won the first prize of the Hubei Province Science and Technology Award for Technological Invention, a prestigious prize for scientists. Their groundbreaking research on “Development of Liquid Gene Chip Based on Functional Sites of Swine and its Application in Breeding Selection and Mating” garnered the well-deserved recognition.

Sowing the Seeds of Science in Hubei

As a century-old school, HZAU has witnessed generations of agricultural scientists who have joined the Communist Party of China(CPC). Prof. Zhao is no exception and she joined the CPC at HZAU in 1998.

Zhao said: “After joining the Party, I have a strong sense of mission. As agricultural scientists, we have to hold up the “heavens” and support the “earth”. Holding up the “heavens” means that we need to steadily improve our research and innovation capabilities; supporting the “earth” refers to promoting the transformation of research results to better serve major national strategies such as rural revitalization and local social economic development.”

All along, Zhao has been “sowing” the seeds of science all over Hubei province.

Xianfeng County, located in Enshi Prefecture, Hubei Province, was once a national-level impoverished county in the Wuling Mountains. Black pig breeding is an important local industry. However, due to the lack of technical guidance, pedigree breeding played a much larger role. The unsuccessful crossbreeding resulted in small litter sizes and mixed hair colors of commercial pigs, which further lead to low profits.

 When Zhao learned that, she offered professional advice on selection of Enshi black pigs for local pig farmers. With breeding efficiency improved, the annual supply of 400,000 hybrid pigs have helped to lift a large number of registered poor households in the county out of poverty.

As a government consultant, Zhao has readily advised a wide variety of issues for the development of Hubei’s livestock industry. In 2021, her advisory report for the 14th Five-Year Plan period was accepted, entitled “Problems and Suggestions for the Development of the Pig Industry Chain in Hubei Province”. In the same year, she was appraise as an “Excellent CPC Member of Hubei Province” by the Provincial Party Committee.

Three-decade Teaching Career

Prof. Zhao has two roles as a scientist and an educator. When asked which role she cherished more, she answered without hesitation: an educator.

In the middle of her desk is a commemorative trophy of “Honorable Award for three-decade Teaching”, with the inscription “For life-long dedication to teaching at HZAU”.

As the dean of the College of Animal Science and Technology & College of Veterinary Medicine(CAST&CVM), she still took time to teach undergraduates even with her busy schedule. She has compiled several textbooks, hosted and participated in many provincial, ministerial and university-level teaching and research projects. And she has supervised nearly 100 masters, PhDs, and post-docs.

Zhao also supported and encouraged new and young faculty.

Liu Xiaolei, professor and doctoral supervisor of HZAU, said Zhao always encouraged him, when he felt lost as a newcomer to her team. “When I applied for a talent program, she helped me polish my PowerPoint slides in person and practice presentation more than ten rounds along with others in the team.”

Today, Prof. Liu is engaged in tackling technical difficulties of genomic big data. He has developed a computationally efficient, functionally enriched and user-friendly software HIBLUP for efficient genetic evaluation using big genomic data. It has attracted users from more than 50 countries.

Many young faculty in Zhao’s team have been selected in national and provincial-level youth talent programs. Her team has been listed as the Innovation Team of Hubei Natural Science Foundation, the Innovation Team of the Ministry of Education, the Leading Talent Team of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Innovation Research Group of the National Natural Science Foundation.

“To attain self-reliance and self-improvement in science and technology, China requires efforts of younger generation,” Zhao stated. “As an educator, I firmly bear in mind the mission of ‘cultivating talent for the Party and the State,’ passing down the scientific knowledge imparted by predecessors, and ensuring the continuity of scientific and technological endeavors.”

On March 16, the Hubei Science and Technology Innovation Conference convened in Wuhan, with 14 “Sci-Tech Stars” walking on the red carpet. As the first female scientist to walk on the red carpet, Zhao captured spotlight at the conference.

When asked about her feelings, Zhao remarked, “I feel extremely honored and proud of the women in scientific community. In fact, more women have been distinguishing themselves in sciences in recent years. Science has no gender, and anyone can try and reach for the stars.”

Women are not inferior to men. In the field of science and technology, we have witnessed the power of women. The tenacity, patience, and bravery demonstrated by female scientists are the best proof.

As Professor Zhao noted, “I hope that more women continue to pursue their ambitions, diving into cutting-edge sci-tech research, exploring unknown fields, and striving to build a powerhouse in biological breeding and modern agriculture.”

Translated by: Yang Sitong, Yao Li, Zhang Lijun, Zhang Qiongfang
Supervised by: Guo Haiyan