$250,000 gift from Occidental Petroleum to expand KU biodiversity
you're wondering where the West Nile virus will pop up next,
you might want to check with Associate Professor Andrew Townsend
"Town" Peterson at the KU Natural History Museum
and Biodiversity Research Center.
Using the resources of the KU Biodiversity Informatics Laboratory,
he and KU scientists have successfully predicted the spread
of the virus two years in a row, and now he's in Mexico gathering
the data needed to forecast where West Nile will be by spring
Peterson's work and the efforts of many other KU researchers
will soon be easier, thanks to a $250,000 pledge from the
Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Charitable Foundation.
The pledge to the Kansas University Endowment Association
will fund a major renovation of a laboratory, which is housed
in the museum. Expected to be completed by January 2003, the
expansion will double the space available for researchers,
computers and equipment.
The improvements to the facility will aid researchers who
are creating a new database that will ultimately provide access
to the biological information associated with 3 billion plant,
animal and microbe specimens housed in natural history museums.
"Collectively, these specimens the result of
300 years of the biological exploration of the world
document the life of the planet," said Leonard Krishtalka,
director of the museum and research center. No single database
includes the collections of all the museums, which means that
researchers can have a hard time knowing where to go to examine
Jim Beach, laboratory director, said the new KU facility
would integrate the biological information contained in these
collections, including where and when each specimen was found,
and the particular species of plant or animal to which it
"Knowing the worldwide distribution of an animal, for
example, can enable researchers to create computer models
to help them predict the effects of a long-term drought, the
future extinction of a species or the spread of a disease,"
To make predictions about the distribution patterns for a
virus such as West Nile, ornithologists such as Peterson need
to know where populations of crows and jays birds affected
by the virus overlap with mosquito populations. If
birds infected by mosquitoes in one state travel to another
with uninfected birds, mosquitoes might transmit the virus
among the birds, spreading the disease to new populations
that in turn migrate to other states, Peterson said.
"Using computers, we create simulated patterns of where
the birds will go, and predict where the disease will go next,"
he said. The predictions based on those models are then published
in the scientific literature and presented to federal agencies
in an attempt to provide the broader community with information
to stay one step ahead.
Since entering the field of biodiversity informatics five
years ago, the laboratory's researchers have secured $15 million
in federal grants. The federal grants will fund six to eight
additional staff members for the laboratory. Because the renovations
will provide the space to house the new staff members, Beach
said the Occidental gift would have a major impact on research.
The philanthropic arm of Occidental Petroleum Corp., the
foundation provides support for a wide variety of areas, including
education institutions, scholarships, community centers, hospitals
and national social improvement organizations.
The foundation's gift counts toward the $500 million goal
of KU First: Invest in Excellence. KU Endowment is conducting
KU First on behalf of the university through 2004 to raise
funds for scholarships, fellowships, professorships, capital
projects and program support. KU Endowment is an independent,
non-profit organization serving as the official fund-raising
and fund-management organization for KU.