‘In­sect man’ hits it big

Sci­en­tist with love for bugs helped dis­cover thou­sands of viruses

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By LIU KUN and ZHOU LIHUA

Tian Jun­hua has been study­ing in­sects ever since he was a lit­tle boy, but he never imag­ined that one day his name might ap­pear in one of the world’s top aca­demic jour­nals. Last month, renowned sci­en­tific jour­nal Na­ture pub­lished an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled Redefin­ing the In­ver­te­brate RNA Viro­sphere, re­port­ing the dis­cov­ery of 1,445 viruses that use ri­bonu­cleic acid as their ge­netic ma­te­rial by the Chi­nese Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

Tian, from the Wuhan City CDCP in Hubei prov­ince, was one of the au­thors of the ar­ti­cle. The 36-year-old, a re­searcher at the cen­ter’s in­sti­tute for dis­in­fec­tion and vec­tor con­trol, is also known by the nick­name “in­sect man”.

Born in the coun­try­side near Jing­men, Hubei prov­ince, his child­hood was mostly spent out­doors. “We didn’t have ex­tracur­ric­u­lar classes like chil­dren liv­ing in the city did,” he said. “All of our games were based in the fields.”

Play­ing along­side a river and in the fields ev­ery day, he would of­ten catch all kinds of in­sects and creepy-crawlies — grad­u­ally de­vel­op­ing a skill for it. In the sum­mer, he said he could eas­ily catch 10 kilo­grams of fresh­wa­ter prawns ev­ery day. “When I was a child, I liked watch­ing and catch­ing all kinds of an­i­mals, es­pe­cially bugs,” he said.

In 2000, Tian en­rolled at Huazhong Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity to study in­sect tax­on­omy. Few stu­dents choose to spe­cial­ize in this branch of bi­ol­ogy con­cerned with clas­si­fi­ca­tion, Tian said, as it is dif­fi­cult to get fund­ing and make sci­en­tific break­throughs.

But he stud­ied en­thu­si­as­ti­cally and had con­fi­dence in his cho­sen pro­fes­sion. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 2004, Tian be­gan work­ing for the dis­ease con­trol and pre­ven­tion cen­ter, where he mon­i­tored, iden­ti­fied and clas­si­fied pests and dis­ease car­ri­ers such as mos­qui­toes, mice and cock­roaches.

Five years later, he had caught thou­sands of ro­dents in the sur­round­ing fields and moun­tains, and knew ev­ery species dis­trib­uted around Wuhan. He can now judge at a glance whether an area is likely to con­tain mice and his work has pro­vided am­ple re­search sam­ples to be used for dis­ease pre­ven­tion and con­trol. By Tian’s own es­ti­mate, he has col­lected al­most 1 mil­lion in­sect and an­i­mal sam­ples over the past 12 years.

But col­lect­ing can be dan­ger­ous. Once, while catch­ing wasps with a net on Mount Ji­ufeng, Hubei prov­ince, he was at­tacked by the in­sects. They badly stung his left cheek, which re­mained swollen for two weeks. “The wasp is very pow­er­ful and ag­gres­sive and can even st­ing through a thick bag filled with ice,” he said. “It was truly scary.”

Af­ter a spate of tick-borne diseases hit He­nan and Shan­dong prov­inces in 2009, Tian was sent by the CDCP to in­ves­ti­gate as part of a re­search group. He worked for more than 20 days straight, col­lect­ing sam­ples. Over the fol­low­ing four years he and his col­leagues col­lected about 120,000 ticks, which pro­vided ma­te­rial to help with the clin­i­cal di­ag­no­sis of tick bites.

It was dur­ing this pe­riod that Tian dis­cov­ered a pre­vi­ously un­known virus in his home­town, which was named “Jing­men virus” af­ter it.

Tian’s ded­i­ca­tion to his work means that he of­ten spends long hours in the lab­o­ra­tory, away from his son.

In fact, if the boy needs his home­work checked he takes a pic­ture of it on his mo­bile phone and sends it to his father via WeChat. When­ever the two are to­gether, how­ever, they like to go out and catch in­sects, Tian said.

Chen Liang con­trib­uted to this story.

Con­tact the writ­ers at liukun@chi­nadaily.com.cn


Tian Jun­hua col­lects in­sects dur­ing a field trip in Hubei prov­ince.

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