2 November 2012

The University of Queensland is well advanced in the nation’s quest to be a major stakeholder in the new Asian Century, a leading UQ scientist said today.

Research Professor Robert (Bob) Gilbert – who was among the first foreign appointees of “1000 experts” invited to establish a research laboratory in China – said that during the past 18 months, UQ had been pursuing many of the research objectives outlined in Australian Government’s recent white paper on Asia.

Professor Gilbert divides his time between UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and the new Biolake high-tech park in Wuhan, China.

“As an Australian scientist who spends a good portion of my time in China, I’m confident UQ scientists will play a major role in Asia over the next decade and beyond,” Professor Gilbert said.

“I see increasing scientific collaboration in the food and agriculture sectors, and especially with China.

“The importance of food security is well recognised throughout Asia, and Australian scientists are expected to play a significant role in helping Asian countries respond to their increasingly westernised diet.”

QAAFI Director Professor Robert Henry said rapidly changing patterns of consumption across Asia and the sub-continent were a ‘perfect storm’ of potential health problems in the guise of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

He echoed recent comments from the Australian Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Joe Ludwig, who said that ‘increasing demand among Asia’s middle class for high-quality food and agricultural products presents significant opportunities’ for Australia’s primary industries.

“The expertise of highly experienced cereal chemists such as Professor Gilbert will figure prominently in solutions that seek to unpick the complex chemical interactions that underpin the relationship between diet, health and disease,” Professor Henry said.

“Many people are yet to fully realise the symbiotic relationship that Australian scientists will play in the development of a great many new agriculture and food industries across Asia.”

Over the coming decades, hundreds of millions of people in China are expected to develop diabetes.

In June 2011, Professor Gilbert revealed that his research team, working with scientists from Wuhan University, had identified a link between diabetes and the structure of the glucose-storage molecule (known as glycogen) in liver cells.

According to Professor Gilbert, his research will be part of ongoing efforts to better understand how starch—which comprises 50 per cent of our food energy—is synthesised by plants and digested by humans.

It will also be part of efforts to understand the synthesis and degradation of its sister molecule glycogen, synthesised by humans for controlling blood sugar.

His research is considered crucial to the development of better treatments for diabetes and for control of obesity.

Professor Gilbert’s record of discovery and research training of PhD students is highly valued in China. To date, he has successfully supervised some 65 PhD and MSc students, and 60 postdoctoral fellows.

A fluent French and German speaker, Professor Gilbert is currently learning Mandarin to maximise his Sino-Australian research opportunities.

QAAFI background
Launched 21 October 2010, the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) is an institute of The University of Queensland (UQ), which was formed through and alliance between UQ and the Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF).
Originally QAAFI drew together some 100 research teams specialising in plant, animal and food sciences from twelve UQ and DAFF sites across Queensland.

QAAFI’s long-term goal is to improve the competiveness and sustainability of tropical and sub-tropical food, fibre and agribusiness sectors through high-impact science.
Through science and innovation, the institute pursues research and collaborations that will lead to sustainable agriculture and food. Our objective is to be a world leading research institute in plant science, animal science, and nutrition and food sciences, delivering outcomes in discovery, learning, and engagement.

Contacts: Professor Robert ('Bob') G Gilbert (F.A.A.), (07) 3365 4809 or 041 2215 144, b.gilbert@uq.edu.au QAAFI Communications, 0417 425 510.