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Nov. 9, 2005
Contact: Dan Lara, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU evolutionary biologists receive $1.6M NSF grant to 'Assemble the Tree of Life'

LAWRENCE -- University of Kansas evolutionary biologists have been awarded $1.6 million of a $2.85 million National Science Foundation grant to trace the evolutionary pathways of cnidarians (marine fauna) for the prestigious "Assembling the Tree of Life" project.

Paulyn Cartwright, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and research associate at the KU Natural History Museum; Daphne Fautin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator at the museum; and Allen Collins, research associate at the museum, were awarded the five-year grant Oct. 1.

KU is the lead institution on the grant, which involves various research institutions across several states. The NSF launched the Assembling the Tree of Life project in 2002 to help scientists across a range of disciplines construct a new framework for understanding the evolutionary relationships between all species.

The phrase "Tree of Life" comes from Charles Darwin. He wrote about the tree "with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications." He speculated that all life forms are genetically related in a vast evolutionary tree.

Today, many branches of Darwin's tree remain unanalyzed, and the NSF's goal over the next 15 years is to support research to help the tree grow. Projects for Assembling the Tree of Life, according to NSF, are expected to be ambitious, large scale and to involve multiple investigators from multiple disciplines, likely from multiple organizations, and to include training, outreach and dissemination components.

" The NSF gives funding to three to six groups a year for Tree of Life projects, so I am honored our research proposal for cnidarians was selected," Cartwright said. "It's a prestigious project for KU and the Natural History Museum to be involved with."

The research of Cartwright, Fautin and Collins specifically will focus on the phylum Cnidaria, which includes marine fauna such as jellyfish, sea anemones and corals. Cnidarians diverged from the rest of the animals before the evolution of organs, making their overall anatomy quite simple, Cartwright said. Despite the simplicity, cnidarians have attained incredible diversity through history, comprising more than 11,000 species, many of which display elaborate structures and complex life histories.

" Cnidarians are one of the earliest branching animals in the Tree of Life," Cartwright said. "The primary aim is to obtain DNA from 1,800 cnidarian species, which will generate 23 million base pairs of cnidarian DNA sequence. The information encoded in the DNA will be used to reconstruct their 'evolutionary trees' using computer algorithms."

Research from this project will address many questions: was the ancestor to all cnidarians more anemone-like or coral-like? What are the relationships between jellyfish, corals and sea anemones and other cnidarians called hydrozoans? How and when did coral skeletons evolve?

" Understanding the cnidarian evolutionary tree is important for our understanding of the patterns and processes that accompanied the early diversification of animal life more than 600 million years ago," Cartwright said.

Cartwright and her colleagues intend to collect specimens for the Natural History Museum and sequence their DNA. They are planning several field trips to Japan, South Africa and locations in South America to collect specimens.

Their research also will involve an active educational component. Data collected for the Assembling the Tree of Life database will be developed as educational programs for students at all levels. Museum exhibits will be created based on research results, one at the Natural History Museum and one at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., which is scheduled to open in 2008. A Web site and classroom poster (in English and Spanish) integrated with the latter exhibit will be created in collaboration with a K-12 educator supported through NSF's Research Experience for Teachers program.

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