UC Research Catalyst Award supports conservation genomics project

$1.76 million grant will fund collaborative research among UCSC and four other UCs

Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro (photo by C. Lagattuta)

UC Santa Cruz will play a leading role in a project to preserve biodiversity through conservation genomics, one of four projects selected for 2016 Research Catalyst Awards by UC President Janet Napolitano.

The $1.76 million research grant will support work at five UC campuses, led by UCLA, to develop a revolutionary bioinformatics toolkit to understand changes in gene expression and how threatened populations respond to changes in their habitats and the climate. The collaboration will involve undergraduate students and the public in a DNA-based biodiversity survey across California.

"Our aim is to develop conservation genomics tools for both academic and non-profit use, with a focus on species of special concern to California," said Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and co-director of the project.

Shapiro and project leader Robert Wayne of UCLA developed the proposal for the project, which has three broad aims for advancing the role of genomics in effective conservation: to develop new approaches, to perform cutting-edge research in conservation, and to give the broader community access to these tools and research results.

The researchers have identified 13 species of special conservation significance to California, which they will use as "test cases" for conservation genomics research. At UC Santa Cruz, researchers will focus on four of those species: mountain lions, sea otters, black abalone, and sea stars.

Four awards

The recipients of the UC Catalyst prize were chosen from a pool of more than 180 proposed projects. The four awards Napolitano announced total more than $4.8 million. The other research projects focus on enhancing agricultural resilience in times of drought, preserving cultural heritage sites in the Middle East, and detecting dark matter.

"Some of the most important research happening today is interdisciplinary and collaborative," Napolitano said. "With these awards we are creating new opportunities for those kinds of productive partnerships while furthering research that ranges from archaeology to particle physics."

Napolitano launched the President's Research Catalyst Awards in December 2014. The program channels $10 million over three years to fund research in areas of strategic importance, such as sustainability and climate, equity and social justice, health care, and basic discovery.

To qualify, projects must be multi-campus, multi-disciplinary efforts that offer research, teaching and learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. This year, applicants were also asked to incorporate public engagement and faculty mentorship components into the projects.

This year's recipients were selected following a highly competitive review process. A panel of experts evaluated applications and recommended 10 finalists to the president. Napolitano then selected four projects that represent a broad scope of disciplinary and topical diversity and will be of benefit to California and the world.

The awards are funded through an existing president's fund used to support systemwide initiatives.