School of Biological Science

Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) of Biological Sciences

Ecology

HKU has a significant history of research in ecology originating in the work of Geoffrey Herklots before and shortly after the Second World War. Indeed, the Department of Ecology & Biodiversity was established at HKU in 1994, in recognition of the increasing importance of issues relating to ecology and the environment in Hong Kong, southern China and Asia. Although it was later incorporated within the new School of Biological Sciences (SBS) at HKU, it retains a clear teaching and research identity (http://www.biosch.hku.hk/ecology/).

That identity provides a focus for research and teaching on natural environments in Hong Kong and the Asian region, and beyond, with emphasis on the ecology, conservation and management of all levels of biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the variety of living organisms, and the ecological complexes in which they occur, and constitutes the global biological resources that support human life. Hence it is intimately linked with the sciences of ecology and conservation, more broadly earth system science, and importantly with global environmental change.

Increasingly, anthropogenically driven environmental, including global climate, change is affecting the diversity of biological communities as well as the structure and functioning of ecosystems. One of many ways this occurs is through shifts in species’ distribution and abundance in response to climate change, but considerably more research is needed to understand links between global change and shifts in biogeographic distributions and population demographics. Warmer temperatures and more extreme weather, for example, have important implications for both terrestrial and aquatic realms, and the interactions and material flows between them.

Potential impacts of climate change on animal and plant communities and assemblages include direct effects on component species (e.g. reflecting thermal tolerances), or indirect effects by altering biological interactions and life histories. In turn, changes in species composition will affect ecosystem functioning in ways that are currently not well-understood. Full appreciation of the potential impacts and outcomes of environmental change requires an understanding of the historic drivers of species diversity patterns, identification of ‘shifting baselines’, measurement of the contemporary processes that shape present day patterns, and prediction of future changes based on this information.

Moreover, the extension of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to Hong Kong as of June of 2011 requires the drafting and implementation of a Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. This presents further opportunity to integrate biodiversity and conservation into the wider policy agenda. To do this, the government will require the support and involvement of the public, and especially experts on ecology and biodiversity conservation from a range of backgrounds.

Endocrinology

It has been just over a century since the discovery of the first hormone by Bayliss and Starling in the history of natural science. With the more inclusive definition of "hormone", as suggested by Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin, hormones and neurohormones are chemical substances that impact virtually all aspects of our lives, from growth, reproduction and metabolism to water homeostasis. Now, endocrinology is clearly a fundamental area in biological sciences. All core members of this research theme have demonstrated excellence in research in the past evidenced by our numerous publications in prestigious journals and success in attracting competitive outside funding. Most members are highly visible and are key players locally and internationally, we are recognized by receiving multiple research awards and are senior editors and editors of prestigious journals. The vision of this theme is to provide a platform to cultivate academic excellence internationally and to establish leadership in the area of endocrinology within Hong Kong by encouraging intra- and inter-disciplinary research and collaboration, as well as providing high quality education for postgraduates. Initially, we divide the core members into several research areas, while our long-term goal is promote synergistic and collaborative research efforts of all members within this SRA.

Food Safety & Food for Health

Food safety deals with the principles of delivering foods that are safe for human consumption. Monitoring all the hazardous chemicals in food, whether added intentionally (pesticides and food additives/preservatives) or unintentionally (environmental contaminants, microbial toxins) and regulating them using sound safety management and toxicological principles and methodology is the main goal of food safety.

Rapid population growth, and urbanization and development has resulted in the pollution stress of marine environment of HK through various anthropogenic discharges leading to very high concentrations of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in sea foods including mussel tissues. Pearl River Delta (PRD), which is one of the fastest developing regions in the world, is now a major source of pollution to the HK marine environment. This can lead to high levels of pollutants in the environment including seafood. Food safety also deals with monitoring the level of these pollutants.

The recognition of health benefits of bioactive food components has ushered in a new era in the field of “Food for Health” or “Functional Food”. These food components are useful in preventing diseases especially degenerative diseases, such as cancer, arteriosclerosis, osteoporosis, cognitive decline, cataracts and others. For this area of research, an integration of research efforts from multiple principles including food science, nutritional science, nutrigenomics, molecular biology, pharmacology and biochemistry are needed.

HKU has a recognized strength in this area with Agricultural Sciences (including food science) at HKU ranked highly among all Chinese universities and research institutions based on statistics from Essential Science Indicators. Core members are not only active researchers, and excellent teachers in the Food & Nutritional Sciences major, but also are consultants/technical experts to local and overseas public and private sectors for food safety and functional foods. All project team members have excellent track records and have synergistic and interdisciplinary collaborations. We intend to build a team with a strong expertise in natural products chemistry (natural products isolation, structural elucidation and modification), instrumental analysis, food processing and engineering, nutrigenomics, metabolomics, food microbiology, and food toxicology. We have common research interests under the theme of ‘Food safety and food for health’. The group is already at an internationally competitive level. Our long-term objective is to use biological, biotechnological, chemical and physical approaches to enhance food safety and quality and to elucidate the health benefits of novel food biomaterials. We also aim to make significant contributions to the healthcare of Hong Kong people and bring prestige and visibility to the University of Hong Kong through further development of this area of research excellence.

Plant Evolution and Adaptation

Evolution is the central concept that underpins and interconnects all biological research: it not only links organismal, cellular and molecular biology, but also connects basic research on natural ecosystems and model organisms with applied research on domesticated and cultivated species. The School of Biological Sciences includes a critical mass of academic staff who share a common interest in plant biology, and who have a shared vision for the dynamic integration of their respective research capabilities by focusing on plant evolution and adaptation (PEA).

Evolutionary biology research focuses on both the process of evolution and the pattern resulting from this process. Molecular phylogenetic research, which is widely used to reconstruct evolutionary patterns, can also be used as the basis for understanding evolutionary processes, including functional interpretations of morphological, physiological and chemical adaptations. Research collaborations amongst PEA members involving molecular phylogenetic analyses have already resulted in co‑supervised RPgs and co-authored publications, and we recognise enormous potential for further extending and diversifying the application of this expertise. A future anticipated development is the application of next generation sequencing techniques to enable analysis of whole-genome sequence data and transcriptomics.

Plants are sessile and need to adapt in response to biotic and abiotic stresses brought about by phytopathogens, extremes in temperature, water deficiency and heavy metals. Investigations that identify the genes responsible in altering the transcriptome and proteome to attain stress resistance will ultimately be useful in agriculture and medicine because plants provide us with food and economically important products, e.g. pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, fragrances, and flavour compounds. An understanding of stress-resistant genes will enable the subsequent genetic manipulation of economically useful plants to benefit mankind. We have established model plant systems (Arabidopsis, rice, tobacco, etc.) for genetic manipulation and analysis of stress responses. Drawing on our expertise in phylogenetics, we can examine the evolutionary relationships of different stress-resistant genes and their potential applications in plants of diverse taxonomic background. The above investigations can be achieved using a multidisciplinary approach involving SRA members with expertise in plant genomics, phylogenetics, proteomics, metabolomics and natural product chemistry.

For details of Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) of Biological Sciences, please visit: http://www.biosch.hku.hk/researchsra.html

Areas of Activities (AOAs) for Biological Sciences

Ecology & Biodiversity 

Ecology & Biodiversity is united by a common interest and mission to understand and conserve biodiversity, from genes to species to ecosystems, and through an integrated teaching and research programme. Our interests range from terrestrial and aquatic ecology, ecological risk assessment and conservation, to systematics, community structure and mitigation of environmental impacts.

While we work mainly in China and the Asia-Pacific region, we also have many long-established affiliations, and collaborate locally and internationally with government, and with non-governmental conservation organizations (including WWF, IUCN, TRAFFIC and the Conservancy Association). We have a close affiliation with The Swire Institute of Marine Science, located at the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island, maintain an internationally registered herbarium, and have research links with the Kadoorie Farm and Biological Gardens in the central New Territories.

 For E&B course modules -- Learning Support Centre (LSC)

 Mission

  • To conduct high quality research of local and global relevance that enhances our understanding of terrestrial and aquatic species and ecosystems in the region.
  • To train and inspire students to demonstrate excellence in research, and to prepare them for entering wider Society with competency in environmental science.
  • To seek means of maintaining social and economic benefits derived from natural resources through conserving species and ecosystems, based on the use of sound scientific principles.
  • To communicate the importance of biodiversity and ecological research to students, policy-makers and the community, and to facilitate its application to conservation science and sustainable development.

Food & Nutritional Sciences

Food and Nutrition seeks to sustain and enhance its excellence through outstanding and world-class research activities. We believe that the rigorous application of science to this field can enhance the production of food and its ability to sustain quality of life through healthy diet and safe food supply. With growing populations and increasing need for food, and heavy pressure to eat excessively, seeking a balance between need and greed for a healthy diet is increasingly important.

Mission

  • To lead the development of scientific knowledge required to strengthen the role of food and health in the 21st century.
  • To research, develop, and disseminate new mechanisms and processes for the sustainable production, management and use of food and nutrition for safety and health and to prepare postgraduates to undertake this work within industrial, governmental and academic settings.
  • To promote among the citizens of Hong Kong, China, and the global marketplace, healthy eating styles, and facilitate safe access to food. We hope to contribute to a better educated public in matters of food and nutrition.
  • To set up a Centre for Food Safety, and Nutritional Policy promotion to conduct scientific research in food and nutrition technology, and to provide advice and support in other environmentally related areas of interest to the people Hong Kong.
  • To meet our mission, research focuses on the following areas.
    • Food & Bio Processing Science
      (Food Processing Sciences, Fermentation Biotechnology, Functional Food & Food Chemistry)
    • Food Microbial Sciences
      (Molecular Systematic & Food Microbiology)
    • Nutrition
      (Human Nutrition, Animal Nutrition & Food Safety)

Molecular Biology & Biotechnology

Molecular biology is easy to understand. Unlike the Chinese language which has more than 5000 characters, nor the English which has 26 alphabets, molecular biology only has four alphabets: A, T, G and C. By looking at the ATGC arrangement, molecular biologists are investigating gene composition and structure, via a model system, either to unveil the mysteries of human body, or discover the cause of a disease, or produce a new medicine. Bacteria are the model systems used by molecular biologists in their research studies. However in our School we have more animal and plant experts. Therefore besides bacteria, we also use plants, rats, mice, chicken, fish, and worms as model systems. These make our research outcome more lively, divergent and applicable. You are welcome to browse our individual web pages, and stop by our offices to discuss a research problem. By other means: send us an email!

Mission

  • To unveil the mysteries of life in general, including plant, animal and microbes
  • To equip the humankind with wisdom of biology in fighting against hunger and diseases

For details of Areas of Activities (AOAs) for Biological Sciences, please visit: http://www.biosch.hku.hk/researchaoa.html.