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Stanford’s Lauren O’Connell among recipients of $10 million NSF awards to develop genomic tools

O’Connell will receive $1.6 million to develop techniques for establishing the functions of genes in amphibians.

August 30, 2018
EDGE logo
EDGE project logo. Image courtesy of Lauren O'Connell.

Stanford biologist Lauren O’Connell is one of eleven recipients of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools (EDGE) program. The awardees are tasked with developing and disseminating tools that allow biologists to address mechanistic questions about how genes affect an organism’s physical and functional characteristics.

O’Connell will receive $1.6 million over the next three years to focus specifically on building gene-editing tools for poisonous frog species in South America and Africa—a diverse group of amphibians for which functional genomic tools don’t yet exist. Poisonous frogs are ideal subjects for testing predictions of how genes influence behavior and development, O’Connell said, because they have evolved warning colorations, chemical defenses, and complex parental behaviors that vary widely between and even within species.

“This EDGE award will enable us to develop resources and training opportunities for the world-wide community of researchers using amphibians as model systems. These genetic tools will enable scientists to investigate a range of genotype to phenotype questions in molecular, organismal, and evolutionary biology while exploring the biological diversity that amphibians offer,” said O’Connell, who is an assistant professor of biology at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

O’Connell also plans to use her NSF award to develop hands-on and online undergraduate and graduate training programs, as well as a national K-12 outreach program to promote the study of amphibian biology and conservation, and evolution in public schools.

The EDGE program was designed to provide support for overcoming impediments to understanding the functional basis of traits at the heart of organismal biology. Specifically, EDGE aims to develop functional genomic tools, approaches, and associated infrastructure to directly test gene function in organisms where such tools are not presently available.

EDGE awards cover a diverse range of organisms from fungi, to plants and animals. Each project will move the scientific community closer to being able to predict phenotype by developing enhanced genomic tools and infrastructure.

“This research represents a grand challenge in biology and is part of a bigger effort within our field to better predict how organismal traits arise from genetic variation in natural environments,” said Ted Morgan, NSF EDGE program director. “Building this fundamental understanding of how genetic changes are connected with organismal traits has a range of significant societal benefits that include predicting organismal responses to changing environment, the development of more effective conservation efforts, the development of new medical approaches, new therapeutics, and better crop yields."

O’Connell is also a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Neuroscience Institute.