The first prize of the 2006 Cheung Kong Achievement Awards went to Prof. ZHANG Yaping (Ya-ping Zhang), an expert in molecular evolution and population genetics from the CAS Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ), and Prof. Zhai Wanming from the Southwest Jiaotong University. The awarding ceremony was held on 28 March at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. State Councilor CHEN Zhili and Chinese Minister of Education ZHOU Ji, attended the ceremony and presented the awards.
The Cheung Kong Scholars Program was jointly established in 1998 by the Ministry of Education and the Li Ka Shing Foundation to enhance the competitiveness of China's higher education sector, groom outstanding talents and promote the country's development. Starting since 2005, the award has expanded beyond China's mainland to include tertiary institutions in Hong Kong and Macau SARs, as well as CAS institutes. The Cheung Kong Achievement Award, with each winner to be awarded up to one million yuan, honors outstanding Chinese scientists under the age of 50 who have a high standard of scientific ethnics and have attained important breakthrough or internationally recognized achievement in natural sciences.
This year, Prof. Dennis Lo Yuk-ming from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Prof. FANG Jingyun from Peking University were each bestowed the second prize.
ZHANG Yaping, a CAS Member and KIZ director, completed his post-doc studies at the Center for Research of Endangered Species, the Zoological Society of San Diego. In 2002, teaming up with Peter Savolainen and their colleagues, he examined the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence variations amongst more than 600 domestic dogs, representing all major dog populations around the world, discovering that all dogs share an East Asian origin from some 15,000 years ago. This result, published in Science, won world-wide applause and greatly enhanced the integration of molecular biology with traditional zoology.
In the following years, Zhang's team has turned to analyzing the mitochondrial genome variation in Asian human populations. Their results support the "out-of-Africa" hypothesis, and suggest a single rapid dispersal from Africa along the Asian coast (the Southern Route), rather than the traditional two routes hypothesis. Their studies also support the genetic admixture hypothesis of central Asian populations, revealing that the formation and development of China's Han people, starting from central China, mainly consisted of a political expansion process that led to the cultural assimilation of numerous ethnic groups under the dominant Han culture.
These fruitful research outcomes have won Prof. Zhang great renown and respect within the scientific community. He became the first Asian scholar to receive the Biodiversity Leadership Award in 2002, and later also received the Young Scientist Award of China.