BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union (EU) is working to upgrade cooperation with China on biotechnology by setting up the European Biotechnology Node for Interactions with China (EBNIC) to promote joint projects between European and Chinese scientists, both in academia and in industry.

Biomedicine, agriculture and biodiversity are among the topics initially identified for collaborations. Activities envisaged range from supplying guidance on biosafety regulations and on differences in attitudes toward genetically engineered plants to ground rules on how to present patent protocols.

EBNIC also will assist in areas such as selecting Chinese candidates who want to carry out research in European laboratories and offering advice on the organization of science in China and on the pathways to be followed to obtain information or documentation.

Following a first consultative meeting of Chinese and European participants in Heidelberg, Germany, earlier this summer, a management group composed of a dozen senior EU and Chinese biotechnologists has been established to develop the project.

In Europe, the new group is coordinated by EMBO - the European Molecular Biology Organisation - and BioResearch Ireland (BRI).

EMBO, headed by Frank Gannon, has a reputation for being an academy of the leading molecular biologists in Europe. Its most visible activities involve providing fellowships and organizing practical courses and workshops. BRI, headed by Jim Ryan, acts in a less academic environment and is a successful player in the development and transfer of technology to industry.

Other leading European players in EBNIC include Michel Caboche, of the French agricultural research institute; Rino Rappuoli, of the Italian research institute, IRIS; and Martin Taylor, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The EU also is one of the co-sponsors of the upcoming International Symposium on Progress and Prospects in Marine Biotechnology, which will be held in Qingdao, China, Oct. 6 to 9.

At the same time, bilateral contacts in the biotechnology field have been strengthening between some EU member states and China.

A U.K.-China meeting on higher education in biotechnology took place in London in mid-June.

Biotechnology cooperation between China and Germany has led to 26 joint projects; 50 Chinese scientists receiving training in Germany; and a series of seminars on environmental biotechnology, natural products and biosafety. This cooperation has been institutionalized since 1987 and has led to a particularly successful project in the field of protein engineering of human insulin as well as current work on a fermentation process using high-density cell culture to increase product yield.

And the first China-Portugal workshop on biotechnology was held in Beijing in the spring of this year, attended by the Portuguese prime minister and the Chinese minister of science and technology. The workshop focused on plant cell engineering, extremophile research and developmental studies on natural plant products.

Chinese Aggressively Backing Research Efforts

The EU has been following extremophile research, which has been a key focus at the Academia Sinica, in Beijing, given China's high incidence of hot salt springs, where these microbes thrive in conditions that would be lethal for most other creatures.

Studies are under way on the potential of extremophiles in bioleaching and bacterial corrosion. Researchers there are interested in using hyperthermophilic plasmids as markers for DNA topology studies and cloning vectors.

Extremophiles able to live in extreme cold, in highly acidic or alkaline environments and in salty conditions also are under study for potential industrial uses.

Meanwhile, on the Chinese side, the central government's ninth Five-Year Plan has committed significant resources - some Yuan10 billion - to a series of programs in science and technology research, giving rise to a number of biologically engineered medicines entering clinical trials.

In addition, the Chinese government's new foreign investment guidelines for 1998 specify high-technology and life-science applications as among the sectors that benefit from tariff and certain import tax exemptions. *