On a frigid January day, my journey to interview Professor San-Lang Wang actually turned out to be quite heartwarming. Professor Wang not only spent hours preparing for my interview, but still also had time to explain how to get up to TKU a thousand times.
After interviewing Professor San-Lang Wang, I can completely understand how he’s been able to have an amazing 14-year research partnership with Tay Nguyen University of Vietnam. Even though Professor Wang is a ripe 66-years-old, he lit up when talking about advising PhD students that will graduate several years from now and beamed when I said I knew he was on the list for the World’s Top 2% of Scientists in 2021 and 2022. Wang has no intention of retiring, and hopes to keep passing on his love of learning to his students for years to come. Thanks to his passion, some might say that Professor San-Lang Wang is every microorganism’s best friend.
Picture 1: San-Lang Wang holding the product of 30 years of hard work: the 7th edition of Applied Microbiology (Photo: Pei-Lin Lin)
Becoming a Lifelong Friend of Microorganisms through Respect and Reverence
You have to go all the way back to 1994 to understand the story behind the book in San-Lang Wang’s hand: the 7th edition of Applied Microbiology. The book’s numerous revisions record the time Professor San-Lang Wang has spent with microorganisms over the past 30 years.
Walking into his lab, Professor Wang held up a petri dish, and in a joking tone said, “We culture many microorganisms in this lab, but you can never say ‘fermentation stinks’. On the other hand, we have to show our reverence and respect just like the researchers at Kyoto University, who have built an altar for the microorganisms that have died in the name of research.”
Professor Wang saw this altar while traveling and studying in Japan with his master’s thesis advisor Murao Sawao, who is known throughout the country as the “Godfather of Fermentation” and one of Kinichiro Sakaguchi’s students. When getting his PhD in 1990, Wang’s thesis advisor, Arai Motoo, wrote a note to him saying that “microorganisms will always be your best friends.” Looking back at his academic career, from “fishing” for amazing specimens in the fields around TKU to using his research to save coffee trees for ethnic minorities in rural Vietnam and turning herbal medicine into a lifeline for those with diabetes or obesity, microorganisms have indeed been Wang’s lifelong buddies.
Unlocking the Biotech Potential of Herbal Medicine with Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities
Professor Wang and Tay Nguyen University Professor Nguyen Anh Dzung met and became good friends in 2009 when co-chairing the general assembly at the International Conference on Chitin and Chitosan. In 2010 and 2011, Professor Dzung invited Professor Wang to Vietnam to give lectures. The two professors kept collaborating until 2022, and have jointly published over 100 papers in SCI journals and hold more than 10 patents for novel pharmaceuticals.
Tay Nguyen University is located in the Central Highlands of Dak Lak Province, which is Vietnam’s most important coffee growing region and home to over 45 ethnic minorities, numerous national parks and several nature preserves. Some of the chief intentions of establishing a university in the area were to improve the economic standing of local ethnic minorities and to provide scientific legitimacy for medicinal plants and folk medicine.
Thanks to Dak Lak’s rich natural and cultural landscape, Professor Wang and Professor Dzung got patents in Taiwan, Japan and the US after discovering that their alcohol extract of Syzygium zeylanicum, which many ethnic minority tribes in Vietnam view as a miracle cure-all, had properties that could lower blood sugar levels. The duo also discovered that Euonymus laxiflorus, which has been cataloged in the Compendium of Materia Medica, acts as an inhibitor of salivary amylase. Therefore, Euonymus laxiflorus has the potential to not only control blood sugar, but also become the next wonder drug in tackling obesity. Behind their research there’s an even more moving backstory. The team of PhD students working with Professor Wang told him that they were motivated to find natural properties that could control diabetes from fermented microorganisms because they had met a local mom who suffered from intense gas pains every day for years after taking Acarbose pills to treat her condition.
Scientific herbal medicine has become a common field of research due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Professor Wang told me that researchers in Germany, Japan, and Taiwan have done a good job at using chemistry to give herbal medicine scientific credibility. Therefore, even people in the West and Japan are turning towards herbal medicine. By bringing together the wisdom of our ancestors with scientific evidence, Professor Wang has been able to do his part in reducing the side effects of patients taking conventional medicine.
From Trash to Chitin
The type of reverence for microorganisms in Professor Wang’s lab can be traced back to his childhood. Being born in Suao, Yilan, Wang used to go fishing with his dad as a kid. If Wang ever mentioned that fish stank, his dad would scold him, saying that people with a disrespectful attitude never catch anything. Later on, a mountain of crab and shrimp shells piled up next to his house over the years because his family had built their own cold storage facility. When he got back from studying in Japan, Professor Wang knew that this mountain was as good as gold. Do you still remember the International Conference on Chitin and Chitosan Professor Wang participated in? Chitin is the chemical name for substances found in many shrimp and crab shells. This fortunate chain of events helped Professor Wang establish, and eventually serve as the second director general of, the Taiwan Society for Chitin and Chitosan.
When getting back to Taiwan, Professor Wang thought long and hard about how to bolster the circular economy. The process of soaking shrimp and crab shells in acid and bases to make chitin creates a lot of pollution. For comparison’s sake, the price of shellfish powder used in fertilizer and feed is NT$10 per kilogram, while purified chitin costs NT$2000 to over NT$10,000 per kilogram. Unlike other scientists who use chitin to determine chitinase-producing bacteria, Professor Wang uses shellfish powder from his hometown as an inexpensive source of carbon and nitrogen. This has driven a trend in bacteria screening using shrimp and crab shells to produce chitinase. Professor Wang has found a lot of useful bacteria in the dirt around TKU campus. Because Professor Wang is an expert in bacteria screening, he happily said, “Microorganisms are everyone’s lifelong best friends when we use biotransformation to turn food waste into medicine, supplements, or pesticides.”
Getting back to Taiwan-Vietnam research, Vietnam produces the most pepper and the second most coffee in the world. Dak Lak Province, where Tay Nguyen University is located, is the country’s main producer of both pepper and coffee. Professor Wang’s Vietnamese PhD students solve root-knot nematode infection in coffee and pepper plants through imitating his strategies on the circular economy, using microorganisms in pest control, and utilizing the bacterial fermentation of agricultural and aquatic waste such as peanut husks and crab shells.
When mentioning this, Professor Wang smiled while sipping on a cup of coffee that his student brought back from Vietnam and said, “Who said basic subjects are useless? As long as you have a fundamental grasp of chemistry, you can get into anything from pharmaceuticals and food production to even growing coffee.” It turns out that research can be a joy in and of itself. Next time you have the chance to drink a cup of Vietnamese coffee, don’t forget about the academics that protect the Earth and our health because they have devoted their lives to microorganisms.
Picture 2: Professor Wang inspecting the results of a student’s experiment (Photo: Pei-Lin Lin)
Picture 3: (From the left) Professor Nguyen Anh Dzung, Osaka Prefecture University Professor Ikuo Fujii, Ho Chi Minh City University of Food Industry President Phong Tan Nguyen, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vietnam Science and Technology Division Counsellor & Director Hui-huang Hsu, Professor San-Lang Wang, and Professor Van Bon Nguyen. (Photo: San-Lang Wang)
Picture 4: Tobacco sun drying in an ethnic minority village located within a national park of Dak Lak Province (Photo: San-Lang Wang)
Pei-lin Lin obtained her B.A. in Philosophy from Fu Jen University and her M.A in Political Science from National Taiwan University. Lin embodies a humanistic literacy and political sensibility. In recent years, Lin has collaborated with the Taiwanese government to shoot videos promoting various policies. Currently, Lin splits her time between running a Chan Lands Ltd., Zongdipan, making documentary films and hosting the podcast “Human Translation Machine.” In the past, Lin has been a reporter for several media outlets and the anchor of shows on TVBS, CBC and Da Ai Television. While at Da Ai Television, Lin’s piece “Muhammad Yunus- Savior of the Poor,” was nominated at the First Taiwan Golden Wheel Awards for Outstanding Television News Feature.