Health/science notes: Pitt research team gets $2 million grant for biodiversity project

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Plants with more than two sets of chromosomes, known as polyploids, are common. But how they contribute to biodiversity has remained a mystery that a research team from the University of Pittsburgh and Oregon State University hopes to solve.

The team led by principal investigator Tia-Lynn Ashman, the associate chairwoman of Pitt's department of biological sciences, has landed a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to use wild strawberry plants (Fragaria) to identify what role genetic diversity plays in polyploids, which make up 30 to 80 percent of all living plants.

The study will help scientists predict how plants will respond to environmental change.

"This deeply integrated comparative study of the wild relatives of the cultivated strawberry -- a species of worldwide economic importance -- will provide foundational knowledge and contribute unparalleled resources that may be harnessed in efforts to ensure the sustainability of the strawberry and related crops, such as the cherry, peach or apple, in the face of stress from nonliving factors," said Ms. Ashman, who holds a doctoral degree.

Of the 20 species of strawberry, nearly half are polyploids, which will be studied in centers of diversity in China and America that provide ideal ecological settings for the project. Fragaria is susceptible to climate change because of its early spring flowering and northern latitude or high-elevation distribution. Ms. Ashman said the wild strawberry will be key in helping biologists resolve uncertainties about the impact that such polyploids have on biodiversity.

"We will use common garden studies of natural and synthetic polyploids in the greenhouse and at climatically diverse sites to quickly identify the factors that underlie its functional traits and gene expression diversity," she said.

A key goal is to forge links between gene expression and functional variation, which will help determine where in the lineage the majority of genetic and functional diversity resides. In addition to solving the unknown mysteries of multichromosome plants, the project also will involve participation from high school and middle school teachers through workshops and training sessions, with team plans to publish research findings in academic journals.

Gifts to endow Pitt chairs in cancer, medicine

The Pittsburgh Foundation has awarded two $1 million gifts to the University of Pittsburgh to establish two endowed chairs supporting groundbreaking cancer research and personalized medicine.

With the grants, Pitt will create The Pittsburgh Foundation Endowed Chair in Innovative Cancer Research and The Pittsburgh Foundation in Personalized Medicine that will serve as cornerstones in high-profile, priority areas of research.

"In partnership with UPMC, the university is poised to advance discoveries in cancer and personalized medicine, making a strong impact on our community," said Grant Oliphant, foundation president and chief executive officer. "The establishment of the endowed chairs will enhance health care delivery for patients throughout our region and beyond."

The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute has launched a broad-based community effort to match the $1 million gift from the foundation for the Endowed Chair in Innovative Cancer Research through additional funds from individuals. UPMC will match the $1 million gift for The Pittsburgh Foundation Chair in Personalized Medicine.

In 2001 the foundation and its supporting organizations awarded $41.1 million grants to a vast array of nonprofit organizations, students through scholarships, and medical researchers, based on donor interests and specific purposes of individual funds.

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