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A group of Brigham Young University professors in the Department of Integrative Biology received a $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study biodiversity in Patagonia, the southernmost region of South America.

The five-year project will examine evolutionary diversifications of fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans and terrestrial plants in southern Chile and Argentina. The NSF-funded study will also focus on creating international scientific partnerships by bringing together more than 100 scientists and students in Chile, Argentina, Canada and the United States.

"Receiving this grant provides exceptional research and educational opportunities," said Jerry Johnson, assistant professor and the grant's primary investigator. "What makes the project so unique is that it is designed to foster long-term research and educational collaborations by bringing together students and scientists from very different cultural backgrounds."

Faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates from eight institutions of higher education will travel to and from Patagonia to collect and analyze data. Johnson estimated that around 20 BYU researchers of different education levels will be involved in the collaboration each year.

The project focuses on the impact of geology and climate change on the evolutionary history of animal and plant species in Patagonia. Understanding factors that shape the region's biodiversity is crucial to conservation efforts and government policies.

"A broad examination of the ecology and evolutionary history of this region will be key to long-term environmental planning in Patagonia," Johnson said. "We fully expect to discover new species and at the same time expect to generate and test key hypotheses to explain patterns of South American biodiversity."

International meetings and workshops to share research findings will take place once every year during the grant. The first meeting is scheduled in Chile this winter. The BYU Kennedy Center's Latin American Studies program will provide cultural training to students preparing for international research experiences. In addition, the project will take advantage of the many Spanish-speaking students at BYU as well as support a bilingual Web site to alleviate language barriers.

Integrative biology professors Jack Sites, Keith Crandall and Leigh Johnson are co-principal investigators in this study, each with specialized expertise with different organisms and experience in international research. Their proposal was one of only 12 chosen by the NSF for funding among 173 submissions from major universities throughout the U.S.

"Our research program in phylogenetics, phylogeography, speciation and the extension of this basic research into conservation issues is very strong and competitive at a national level," Sites said.

The extensive implications of this grant will allow BYU opportunities to function as a center for intellectual exchange.

"This project will catalyze an impressive scientific exchange in evolutionary research between the U.S. and South America," Johnson said. "Years of preparation now allow BYU to serve as the flagship institution in this kind of collaborative work. We are particularly excited about the opportunities that this grant provides to develop the next generation of scientists in international research."

Writer: Samantha Hall