Crowdfunding for Azolla Fern Research Hits Target

Fay-Wei Li and Kathleen Pryer with a sample of the azolla fern. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photo
Fay-Wei Li and Kathleen Pryer with a sample of the azolla fern. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photo

A Chinese biotech firm has pushed biology professor Kathleen Pryer and her team over the top in their quest to fund the sequencing of the azolla genome and its associated symbiotic bacteria – a project ultimately aimed at combating global warming and boosting agricultural yields.

Pryer shared the news with more than 80 crowdfunding backers late last week. “We are thrilled to announce that the Azolla Genome Project has found its ultimate advocate,” she said. A leading international genome sequencing center -- Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) in Shenzhen, China –will partner with the Duke and Utah State University researchers to complete the sequencing, which is aimed at characterizing the molecular machinery underlying an unsual symbiotic partnership.

BGI was likely drawn to having its name associated with a high impact paper, Pryer said.

Pryer's bid to use the fern for carbon-capture, first publicized in an op-ed, gained momentum as a featured project at experiment.com, which led to international media coverage, including in The Economist. The full range of coverage was featured in a Duke Today story.

Because the team surpassed its original target of $15,000 (they’re now at $20,449), they will continue to raise money on experiment.com in the form of a stretch goal. The new goal of $22,000 will have the same end date of July 11.

“If we reach this new goal, we will be able to perform optical mapping, a new technology that will greatly enhance the final quality of our draft genomes,” Pryer said.

“The rapport we’ve had with all the contributors has been so cool,” she said. “I intend to keep them fully informed all the way through.” She says funders can expect to see photos later this month when the aquatic fern specimens arrive from The Philippines, as well as receive regular updates as the full sequencing is completed over the next year.

Pryer believes grad students should look to experiment.com as a funding source, especially for projects requiring less than $3,000. “It helps you articulate what you do to the general public – to make the research more understandable. There can never be harm in that.”