Auburn-led research team awarded $3 million grant to study biological diversity

AUBURN – A team led by Auburn University researchers Ken Halanych and Scott Santos was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation through the Assembling the Tree of Life program. The grant is for $3 million, with Auburn’s portion totaling $1.4 million.

Assembling the Tree of Life is an NSF initiative that seeks to improve understanding of the diversity of life on the planet and how the Earth’s more than 1.7 million species are related. Halanych and Santos are studying annelids, or segmented worms, one of the most abundant organisms on the planet.

“While everyone, young to old, is aware of ‘worms,’ most don’t realize how vitally important they are both environmentally and economically,” Santos said. “Although this project’s objectives are to explore the diversity within the annelids, it also presents an opportunity to raise awareness in this fascinating group of organisms.”

With more than 16,500 known species, annelids serve important functions in terrestrial environments, are the basis of commercial enterprises and can act as indicators of environmental health as well as become invasive or pest species when introduced into foreign environments. These life forms can contribute to a better understanding of genetics, biological development and the effects of disasters like the Gulf oil spill on marine life.

“We have to know what species are out there to appropriately manage those natural resources,” Halanych said. “There are a number of unrecognized species which look morphologically similar, but we know they are genetically different, suggesting they are different species. We just need to do the work to figure out how and why they are different. This process will help inform us as to how animals evolve and adapt to environmental change.”

The project also has implications in the fields of paleontology, marine biology, physiology and evolution.

“If we know of an organism that is commercially important for medical or economical reasons, it often turns out that many of the closer-related individuals are very important or could potentially be important in those realms as well,” Halanych explained. “So understanding those relationships becomes very important.”

The project is an international effort with the University of Kansas, Colgate University, Texas A&M at Galveston, Southern Illinois at Carbondale and the University of Osnabruck in Germany. It includes the development of resources including research databases, blogs of field trip journals, annelid news and recently released publications available through the Internet as a means of disseminating information to other scientists around the world as well as to the general public.

“Both Dr. Halanych and I believe that our mission as scientists includes informing the public on the importance of understanding and conserving Earth’s biodiversity. By directly engaging the public through various avenues, we hope to instill the importance for supporting research while generating excitement in the next generation of scientists in our country,” Santos said.

(Written by Carol Nelson.)

Contact: Carol Nelson, (334) 844-9999 (nelsoc4@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)