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Researchers studying freshwater environments in the Meramec River watershed

Researchers Kevin Krause, left, and Megan Pagliaro, shown sampling fish in the Meramec River, were part of a recent biodiversity project led by St. Louis University biology professor Jason Knouft. Knouft received funding this week from the Living Earth Collaborative. Photo by Allison Davis. 

Eight new biodiversity projects are set to take root in St. Louis and as far away as Africa thanks to funding announced this week by the Living Earth Collaborative.

The collaborative, a partnership among Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo, provides a forum for people to find common interests and to work together. Its seed grant program, which is primarily funded by Washington University, is critical to that mission.

“The idea is to provide funding to encourage people to create new collaborations and to get them off the ground,” said Jonathan Losos, director of the Living Earth Collaborative. “We’ll plant the seeds and hope they germinate.”

To be eligible for funding, proposals must be new research projects that address some aspect of biodiversity and feature collaborations between researchers at different departments at Washington U. or other regional institutions. Each project can receive up to $30,000 and should be completed in approximately one year. Nine projects were funded in 2018, the year the collaborative was established.

This year, eight projects were funded involving 26 researchers who span five Washington U. schools and the Tyson Research Center, as well as five other institutions in the St. Louis region, including St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“This funding has encouraged collaboration across biological and social sciences,” said Carolyn Lesorogol, a professor and associate dean for Global Strategy and Programs at the Brown School at Washington University. “That’s not always easy to accomplish.”

With this funding, Lesorogol and her collaborators will study an endangered zebra species in Kenya and human-wildlife conflicts in East Africa.

Other projects funded this year will occur in the St. Louis region.

“Healthy people require healthy ecosystems,” said James Aronson, senior scientist at the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development at the Missouri Botanical Garden and co-founder of the EcoHealth Network. Aronson is partnering with a landscape architect, urban planner and population biologist to design a garden in north St. Louis. The urban garden will support biodiversity, capture carbon from the air and connect researchers with the local community. This design can then be implemented throughout the St. Louis region and could serve as a model for other cities worldwide.

A study on freshwater environments, including the Meramec River watershed, was also awarded funding.

“Rivers and streams are in some ways the endpoint for everything that we do on the landscape,” says Jason Knouft, a biology professor at St. Louis University. Lawn fertilizer, road salts and other contaminants run off into the watershed when it rains, which can affect habitat quality for the organisms living in them.

With funding from the collaborative in 2018 and 2019, Knouft and his collaborators are exploring how human-altered landscapes affect freshwater fish and their gut microbes.

“We never could have done this project without the Living Earth Collaborative,” said Knouft. “It’s allowing us to develop this preliminary framework and preliminary data to answer a broad range of questions.”

Seed grants are just one component of the collaborative’s investment in biodiversity research. This summer, four postdoctoral fellows funded by the Living Earth Collaborative will start their own projects with advisers from various institutions in the St. Louis region.

Sacha Heath, a postdoctoral fellow since June at the Living Earth Collaborative, is partnering with the St. Louis Audubon Society’s Bring Conservation Home program to study urban bird populations. Over 1,000 people are currently enrolled in this program, which helps landowners restore native plant and animal habitats in their backyards.

“I’ve always thought that conservation and biodiversity issues can only be addressed with a lot of collaboration between different entities. I just don’t see that opportunity in any other fellowship,” Heath said.

While many of the projects funded by the Living Earth Collaborative are driven by the researchers’ ideas, flagship initiatives that leverage scientific expertise in St. Louis are also in the works.

“An obvious topic was Madagascar,” said Losos. “The zoo and the (Botanical) garden have a long-standing program in Madagascar that has been spectacular, which is why they’re receiving the award from the Whitney Harris center.”

The Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center, which has collaborated with the Missouri Botanical Garden and St. Louis Zoo for 28 years, will present the World Ecology Award to these two institutions in November. The Living Earth Collaborative is building upon this work by supporting research on lemur populations at two sites in Madagascar where the zoo and garden have previously been involved.

“We need all the help we can get,” said Patricia Parker, director of the World Ecology Center and Des Lee Professor of Zoological Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It’s wonderful that Wash U. is investing in this.”

In addition to the research and fellowship programs, the Living Earth Collaborative hosts monthly events where people can meet, mingle and discuss ideas. “My motto is put people in the same room and good things will happen, and they have been happening,” Losos said.

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