The ASPIRE program starts to support nature conservation in a changing climate

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In California, 2022 was the worst mega drought the state has had in over a millennium. This dry spell is expected to worsen as the summer progresses and could have devastating effects on California’s ecosystems, especially if the late rains trigger another intense fire season.

Concerned about the potential loss of biodiversity under such extreme conditions, Beth Shapiro, Associate Director of Conservation Genomics at the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute, is taking urgent action to map our current biodiversity before it’s too late. To that end, 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 donation from the Helen & Will Webster Foundation.

“The first step to understanding how these events affect biodiversity is to know what’s there now — we need to gather that baseline data,” Shapiro said.

Modeled after the University of California’s successful CALeDNA program, ASPIRE will use eDNA to track changes in biodiversity caused by drought, wildfires, agriculture and urbanization, and other forms of human impact. This data will enable researchers to learn how biodiversity drives ecosystem resilience and will be key to developing strategies to prevent future biodiversity loss despite our changing climate.

The project will leverage UC Santa Cruz’s expertise in ancient and environmental DNA to address the challenges of identifying and quantifying the short and degraded sequences that have historically hampered the use of environmental samples to track biodiversity . The goal is to develop a “total biodiversity” monitoring system that couples novel eDNA isolation approaches with machine learning to predict and characterize changes in biodiversity over time and identify drivers of ecosystem resilience that conservationists could exploit to develop protection strategies.

Engage future generations to save the planet

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

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

The long-term goal of the ASPIRE program is to develop an eDNA Biodiversity Science Center within the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute. This center will track changes in biodiversity across large and diverse landscapes and will provide not only a physical archive of California’s changing biodiversity with freeze banks of frozen soils and sediments, but also a virtual public domain data archive to make eDNA data freely available to conservationists and educators alike as they inspire change to save our planet.

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