Blog‎ > ‎

Duke researcher uses crowdfunding to raise money for fern genome project

posted Jul 17, 2014, 4:56 PM by Siamak Ebarhimi

When the traditional grant-making agencies weren’t biting, Duke University biology professor Kathleen Pryer turned to the Internet to help her reel in funding for her research.

Through a crowdfunding campaign on the website Experiment, Pryer was able to get backing from a plant-loving high school student, a science-fiction writer and other individual donors. And after she got a big offer from a Chinese company through the campaign, Pryer got what she needed to move forward with her proposal to sequence the DNA of a specific type of fern called Azolla.

It was frustration that Pryer said led to her crowdfunding, a method of raising money that’s also been used for art projects, movies and small business start-ups through websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter.crowdfunding marketing

 “Despite the price of genome sequencing having come down tremendously over the last few years, it’s been impossible for me to get funding agencies interested in sequencing a reference genome for ferns,” Pryer said. “It was really out of my frustration that I wasn’t able to get any traction with traditional funding agencies (that led me to crowdfunding).”

Found mainly in sub-tropical areas, the Azolla fern is an aquatic plant that has a symbiotic relationship with a type of bacteria living inside its leaves, Pryer said. That bacterium can turn nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that’s usable by the plant.crowdfunding advertising

While Pryer said she has a basic science interest in mapping out Azolla’s genome, she also described potential commercial applications for it, such as creating natural fertilizer for crops. If they can use the genetic information to identify specific genes involved in the way the fern is able to get the nitrogen fertilizer it needs, then maybe there’s a way to engineer corn, rice or other crops to have that same mechanism. And she said environmentally-friendly alternatives are needed to current fertilization methods.

“That’s one of the most important questions humanity faces -- is that we are poisoning our planet by making chemical nitrogen that we are throwing onto our farms,” she said. “It takes an incredible amount of fossil fuels to make synthetic nitrogen…something needs to change.”indiegogo marketing

While she said she’s gotten her fair share of National Science Foundation funding, traditional U.S. funding sources were “continuing to be so negative” about her proposal to sequence a fern genome. In contrast, she said money has been poured into efforts to sequence the genomes of plants like corn and rice through the Plant Genome Research Program.

“If it’s just mosses, and nobody eats mosses and ferns and those sorts of things, then they don’t want to fund that,” she said. “But my problem was: How are we really going to understand the plant genome if we’re only looking at only very highly derived members of the plant world?”kickstarter marketing

Lily Whiteman, a senior public affairs officer for the National Science Foundation, said in an email that Plant Genome Research Program is part of an initiative that focuses on plants of economic importance. Much of the work that gets funded does focus on crops, but some of it goes to non-crop research if there’s a potential economic value to the work or in cases where the work might translate into greater understanding of crops.

Pryer knew of a graduate student that had successfully crowdfunded a research proposal. She also backed several projects herself. Through her own campaign, she set out to raise $15,000 from online donors. And then, she said the Beijing Genomics Institute offered to do the sequencing work for free.kickstarter project

Because she didn’t want to let her contributors down, she plans to use the money raised from individual contributors to continue the project. It will be used to get “more polished” and refined results. The sequencing data from the institute will be more of a “rough draft” of the genome sequence. She expects it to take about a year for the data to come back from the institute, and for graduate students to take on the computational analysis of the data that they get.

Beyond helping to move her project forward, Pryer said she felt the experience was also useful in another way: It brought her “face-to-face” with the public.

“It’s important to engage with the public and not just sort of hide in our little white lab coats, and no one else can follow what it is we do,” she said.CrowdFunding advertizing

Posted from:

By David Khorram