ASPIRE program launches to aid conservation in a changing climate

Students walk along a log above a stream, amid a forest with dry trees.
A new program out of the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute involves students in an effort to measure changes in biodiversity and ultimately prevent them.

In California, 2022 has marked the most severe megadrought the state has had in over a millennium. This dry spell is expected to get worse over the summer and could have devastating consequences for California’s ecosystems, especially if the late rains spur another intense fire season.

Concerned about the potential loss of biodiversity in such extreme conditions, Beth Shapiro, Associate Director of Conservation Genomics at the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute, is taking urgent action to record our current biodiversity before it is too late. To do this, she is launching a pilot program this summer called Accelerating Science to Prepare for an Inclusive and Resilient Earth (ASPIRE), funded by a generous and timely gift from the Helen & Will Webster Foundation.

“The first step to understanding how these events impact biodiversity is to know what is there now – we must collect these baseline data,” Shapiro said.

ASPIRE is modeled from University of California’s successful CALeDNA program and will use eDNA to track biodiversity changes driven by drought, wildfire, agriculture, and urbanization, as well as other forms of human impact. These data will allow researchers to learn how biodiversity drives ecosystem resilience and will be key to devising strategies to prevent future biodiversity loss despite our changing climate.

The project will take advantage of UC Santa Cruz’s expertise in ancient and environmental DNA to combat the challenges of identifying and quantifying the short and degraded sequences that have impeded the use of environmental samples for tracking biodiversity in the past. The goal is to develop a "total biodiversity" surveillance system that will couple novel approaches to eDNA isolation with machine learning to predict and characterize changes in biodiversity over time and identify drivers of ecosystem resilience that environmentalists might harness to develop conservation strategies.

Engaging future generations to save the planet

Student engagement is key to the ASPIRE program, which aims to increase and diversify the STEM workforce by providing students with opportunities to engage in cutting-edge approaches to scientific inquiry. The program will help students develop a basic understanding of core concepts in biology and provide a real-world context that matters deeply: the health of our planet.

This summer’s pilot program will engage teams composed of one graduate student and three to four undergraduate students to collect samples from 10 sensitive zones near rivers in California. Metadata will then be collated from these samples, and they will be archived for future processing. The information the teams gather from processed samples will inform the project’s next steps.

The long-term goal of the ASPIRE program is to develop a center for eDNA biodiversity science within the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute. This center will track changes in biodiversity over large and diverse landscapes and provide not only a physical archive of California’s changing biodiversity with freezer banks of frozen soils and sediments, but also a virtual public-facing data archive to make eDNA data freely available to conservation professionals and educators alike as they inspire changes to save our planet.