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UT Arlington researcher earns NSF grant to study rich biodiversity in Africa, discover new reptiles and amphibians

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Media Contact: Bridget Lewis

News Topics: awards, biology, global

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A University of Texas at Arlington biologist will use a National Science Foundation grant to study and identify the processes that have generated the high species diversity in West and Central Africa.

Fujita

He also hopes to discover new reptiles and amphibians in what is considered one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth.

Matthew Fujita, an assistant professor of biology, is principal investigator of the $670,797 grant awarded in March by the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology. The funding will support research that aims to address outstanding questions in biodiversity research and accelerate the pace of biodiversity discovery of the amphibian and reptile wildlife that inhabit the West and Central African regions.

“I was absolutely thrilled when I learned our grant would be supported by the NSF, as it demonstrates that our efforts are valued for making important contributions to understanding the patterns and processes driving biodiversity in West Africa, one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots,” Fujita said.

“By using genomic approaches, including high throughput DNA sequencing, we will be able to rapidly assess the genetic diversity in several frog and lizard species, an endeavor with immediate conservation implications.”

Fujita said ongoing threats of human-caused environmental problems require research such as his. He hopes to identify the best and most efficient approaches to maintaining biodiversity.

Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity where all species, no matter how small, play an important role. A larger number of plant species, for example, means a greater variety of crops. Increasing species diversity ensures natural sustainability for humans and all other life forms. 

James Grover, interim dean of the UT Arlington College of Science called the project an outstanding example of the excellent research being engaged in at UT Arlington. 

“Dr. Fujita and his team are using cutting edge scientific approaches to understanding complex problems such as conservation,” Grover said.

Adam Leaché, an associate professor of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, is co-principal investigator on the study. His lab focuses on evolutionary biology of reptiles and amphibians.

“We have already discovered cryptic species of geckos as part of our previous research in West Africa, and this new grant will greatly expand the scope of our work to many different types of lizards and frogs that have not been previously studied at the genetic level,” Leaché said.

“Our students will learn how to collect and analyze genome data using new technologies. These skills are extremely valuable in today’s genome-centered health care industry, and we predict that their training will be easily transferrable to a variety of different careers.”

Genome structure evolution in reptiles and biodiversity discovery are two major focal points of Fujita’s lab research. Fujita and UT Arlington colleague Todd Castoe were part of the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium, an international collaboration of scientists, which in December published 28 papers – focusing on the genomes of almost 50 birds and three crocodilian species – in the journal Science and other outlets.

National Science Foundation Award Number 1457232 supports the current study, “Mechanisms of Diversification in West African Rainforest Amphibians and Reptiles.” UT Arlington will receive $426,000 of the total amount of the grant for the three-year project.

About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 48,000 students around the world and the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as the seventh fastest-growing public research university in 2013. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more, and find UT Arlington rankings and recognition at www.uta.edu/uta/about/rankings.php.

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The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.