The tiny invertebrates of the ocean are the source of immense wonder to Prof. Peiyuan Qian. The larval biologist and marine ecology expert has spent his academic career studying the workings and impact of such organisms, ranging from shells and coral (marine benthos) to barnacles and algae (a cause of anti-fouling on ships). It has been 30 years well spent and of significant value in the drive for sustainability and understanding of the impact of climate change, with more than 400 research papers published and many patents based on his discoveries.
Prof. Qian studied for his bachelor degree at Ocean University of Qingdao and undertook a master’s degree at Xiamen University before heading overseas to Canada for a PhD at the University of Alberta. He joined HKUST in January 1993. As founding director of the University’s pioneering Coastal Marine Laboratory in 2002, he established a leading-edge marine science research facility for Hong Kong and southern China, located on the HKUST campus’s beautiful Port Shelter shoreline.
Prof. Qian and his research team’s major focus is the interaction of larvae and chemical cues from marine surfaces such as biofilms. In 2016, he received a State Natural Science Award, one of China’s highest honors for scientific discoveries, for his breakthrough on the impact of biofilm on marine benthos and their colonization of a seabed. In discovering that the organisms respond to chemical signals in the biofilm rather than directly from the environment, the research indicated that manipulation of those signals could encourage organisms such as abalone, shells and coral to settle in less polluted areas, helping to rebalance the marine ecosystem and save other species from extinction.
The HKUST researchers, working together with Hong Kong Baptist University, created more news when they decoded the genome of a deep-sea mussel, the first complete DNA for microbenthic animals that inhabit the depths of the ocean. The research was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution journal in May 2017.
“I have been studying the mechanisms and interactions at work in marine environments for over three decades,” Prof. Qian said. “They are still fascinating to me and I believe understanding more can contribute significantly to sustainable development.”
Non-toxic cost-effective solutions for the shipping industry to prevent biofouling – when marine organisms accumulate on ship hulls, impacting on speed and increasing fuel consumption – are another important research area. Prof. Qian has successfully sought to create natural antifouling substances for coatings. These are derived from marine organisms, including sponges and marine bacteria, with compounds patented in the US and China.