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Biologist receives NSF grant to oversee worldwide tapeworm biodiversity project

by Cindy Weiss - July 21, 2008

Janine Caira, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has won a rare $3 million National Science Foundation Planetary Biodiversity Inventory grant to oversee a worldwide network of specialists to study the biodiversity of tapeworms, her research specialty.

The grant will be shared with the University of Kansas, where Caira’s former Ph.D. student Kirsten Jensen is now an assistant professor of biology.

Co-principal investigators with Caira are Timothy Littlewood, a zoologist with the Natural History Museum in London, and Jean Mariaux, a zoologist with the Museum of Natural History of Geneva, Switzerland.

In all, 34 researchers from 20 countries around the world – from Vietnam to Ethiopia to Argentina – will be involved in the massive five-year project to learn as much as possible about the world’s diversity of tapeworms.

Caira, who is known for her sense of humor, titled her grant proposal, “A Survey of the Tapeworms from the Vertebrate Bowels of the Earth.”

Tapeworms inhabit the bowels of all classes of vertebrates, but not much is known about them, she says.

A few are of medical or veterinary interest as parasites, and the researchers expect to learn more about them.

She expects the search to find as many as 1,700 new species, a nearly 40 percent increase over the roughly 5,000 species now known, and under the grant will describe 1,000 of them.

“If we can accomplish what we propose to do, the tapeworms are going to be one of the most well known groups,” she says.

The project will revise the way that tapeworms are classified, using molecular methods as well as more traditional methods that use morphology and anatomy to identify species.

For this project, UConn will be the home of a tapeworm database, designed by Jensen and housed on a server at UITS. All the researchers worldwide will have access to and work from the same database, using the same criteria.

The first phase will be to collect hosts of tapeworms. Sharks, one of Caira’s research interests, birds, and mammals are productive tapeworm hosts.

In the second phase, Littlewood, of the London Natural History Museum, one of the world’s experts on molecular methods of studying flatworms, will sequence the DNA of 1,000 tapeworm species and revise the classification of tapeworms, based on his results.

Once a year, all those closely involved in the project will meet face to face. The first project meeting took place in Slovakia last month.

At other times, www.tapeworms.org, the common web site and host of the database, will connect them.

UConn was awarded $2.6 million, with the remaining $400,000 going to the University of Kansas.

Subcontractors include the University of North Dakota, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and the Czech Academy of Sciences.

“This is a very impressive tribute to one of our most active and long-term, well-supported, and internationally known research programs,” says Gregory J. Anderson, vice provost for research and graduate education.

It is also among the largest research grants to the University, he says, and a good example of a grant program in which matching contributions – from the Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Education, the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – have made possible an otherwise huge and complex research undertaking.

The matching funds will cover expenses such as a multicultural graduate student assistantship and support for a minority undergraduate research participant.

Caira, who has worked on the tapeworm database for 10 years with separate NSF funding, will oversee a research team that includes three postdoctoral associates, two graduate students, and two undergraduates each year of the project at its various sites. One postdoc will work at the U.S. National Parasite Collection in Beltsville, Md. for a year.

In another feature of the project, participants in the Teachers for a New Era program at the Neag School of Education will be involved in writing prototypes for five children’s books about the different groups of tapeworms.

Each book will have a “spokesworm,” as Caira calls it, such as Toni Trypanorhynch.

The NSF introduced Planetary Biodiversity Inventory grants in 2003. Until now, only nine grants have been awarded.

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