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AAAS and Uzbek Life Scientists Identify Opportunities for Future Bioengagement Through Collaborative Research Efforts

Agricultural and environmental challenges—including water management and climate change—as well as human health issues, from infectious diseases to cancers, are being evaluated as potential areas for future research collaboration between the United States and Uzbekistan, AAAS has reported.

Uzbek scientists last month visited AAAS, following up on a September 2012 meeting between the association and the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, to discuss next steps toward establishing joint research programs. AAAS has been working, at the request of the U.S. State Department, to identify opportunities for cooperative efforts between life scientists in the United States and Uzbekistan.

“Science in isolation will not develop,” said Ibrokhim Abdurakhmonov, a professor and director of Uzbekistan’s Center of Genomics and Bioinformatics, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, and O’zpakhtasanoat Association. Ideas are developed within the framework of discussion with collaborators, he noted, and scientists must work together to address concerns about biosecurity, food security, pathogens, the environment and other issues.

Another visiting Uzbek scientist, Professor Abboskhon Marupov, agreed that international research cooperation is essential to advancing scientific goals. “Science has no borders,” said Marupov, head of the Plant Pathology Laboratory at the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources. “Science must serve human beings.”

Uzbekistan, a doubly landlocked agricultural stronghold that abuts Afghanistan to the south and lies due north of Pakistan, gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Cotton production helped to bolster Uzbekistan’s emerging economy, but massive irrigation also drained 90 percent of the once-vast Aral Sea, leaving parched soil contaminated by pesticides. In April 2010, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the sea’s disappearance as “one of the worst manmade environmental disasters of the world.”

In December 2010, the United States and Uzbekistan signed a Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement to promote joint research efforts related to “areas of mutual benefit for peaceful purposes,” explained Kavita Berger, associate director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. Former AAAS President Alice Gast, a U.S. Science Envoy and President of Lehigh University, travelled to Uzbekistan in 2011 to encourage further cooperative research.

Norman Neureiter, senior advisor to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and former science and technology advisor to the U.S. Secretary to State, led the AAAS delegation to Tashkent last year. A report based on that meeting, which included sessions on agriculture and the environment as well as human health, identified both near-term and long-term goals for multi-national research efforts.

Many of Uzbekistan’s research goals relate to national efforts to diversify the economy beyond cotton and to address existing environmental concerns, Berger noted.

Understanding climate change and its effects on crop production and biosecurity, for example, as well as the development of drought-resistant crops and more efficient irrigation technologies to increase water conservation were among the future research goals discussed by representatives of AAAS and the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Life scientists from the two nations are also interested in studying “the molecular mechanisms of action of natural compounds that could be used to prevent or treat cancers, infectious diseases, or other non-communicable diseases,” AAAS reported.

Joint research efforts should help to build a workforce to advance the fields of genomics and bioinformatics, the report noted. Uzbekistan’s research goals in this area include further studies of cotton to characterize, clone and map key traits and genes that allow certain varieties to better resist pathogens and pests and to tolerate harsh growing conditions. “These studies would develop improved crop varieties, which could contribute to sustainable cotton production in the United States and Uzbekistan, using new genome-editing techniques and transgenomic tools,” the report said.

Genomics-based research also should be expanded to encompass Uzbekistan’s other priority crops, including wheat, AAAS reported. Optimizing soil irrigation systems to minimize soil salinization is yet another area of potential future joint research, said Berger, who has also helped AAAS promote bioengagement between scientists in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa.

From the early days of the country’s independence, Uzbekistan’s president established a science and technology committee to set forth research priorities, explained AAAS visitor Ali Akhunov. The creation of the committee sent a clear signal concerning the importance of science and technology to the country’s future, he said, and a competitive grants program provided support for priority research areas. Innovative scientific research projects soon followed to address challenges in the realms of agriculture, medicine, environmental protection and more, said Akhunov, a professor and chief of the Enzyme Chemistry Laboratory at the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan also improved science-related degree programs at higher-education institutions following independence, Abdurakhmonov said. Funding was provided to send 800 students to attend leading universities worldwide. Abdurakhmonov, for example, was dispatched to Texas A&M University.

Uzbekistan’s scientific enterprise is continuing to gain strength, thanks in part to an array of strategic global alliances. With Cambridge University, for example, Uzbekistan has established the Educational-Experimental Center for High Technologies, said Sharafitdin Ya. Mirzaakhmedov, who serves as head of that institution’s chemistry laboratory.


Download the AAAS report Future Opportunities for U.S.-Uzbekistan Cooperation in the Life Sciences

Report cover


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs