With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the DNA Learning Center is launching a pilot project, US Ants, to show the feasibility of citizen scientists using DNA barcodes to identify and map the ant species of the United States. Just as a universal product code (UPC) identifies each commercial product, a DNA barcode can potentially identify each species of ant. We are looking for 50 small teams of people to help with the project. I am writing to InnovATEBIO partners because I think this project offers an opportunity for community college faculty and students to serve as mentors for local citizen scientists.
Why ants? Even though ants seem so familiar, we know relatively little about them. We don’t have detailed maps of where most ant species live or how they are reacting to global climate change or habitat destruction. Approximately half of the 900 species of ants in the U.S. do not have published DNA barcodes!
Who should be on my team? I hope that you will look to your local club membership to form a strong team, with a group of three people being ideal. You should look for team members with complementary interest/expertise in: local habitats, nature study, science methods, and computer analysis. A scientist, science teacher, naturalist, or anyone with experience in identifying ants is a plus. Birders are also potentially good anters! All team members must be at least 16 years of age, and at least one must be 21 or older.
What will I need to do? An online webinar will introduce you and your team to the project. You may be assigned to look for specific ants that are expected in your area or you may be free to look for whatever different kinds you may find. Then you will work with your team to collect several examples of each kind of ant you find. A DNA barcode will be developed from one or two of the samples, and at least one physical specimen will be preserved for visual identification by an ant expert. After DNA sequencing at a central facility, you will work with staff members to analyze your ant barcodes online. Not counting collection, you should be prepared to spend about 4 -6 hours preparing your samples, plus 4-6 hours discussing and analyzing your samples. We expect that all collection and sample processing will be accomplished by the end of September.
How will I be supported? Teams will be mailed a kit with all supplies and equipment needed to isolate DNA from ants and produce scientifically valid DNA barcodes. A DNALC staff or trained mentor will help you with every step of the process. Your team will be virtually connected to DNALC staff and other participants through a dedicated social media channel, regular “all-hands” meetings, and staff “office hours.”
What will be the outcome? Our objective is to publish several hundred DNA barcodes to GenBank, the authoritative DNA database. You and your team members will be co-authors on the scientific publication of each ant sequence you produce! We expect that many of these will be the first barcode records submitted for different species, but all records will provide valuable data to document specific ants at specific locations in the U.S. This will improve range maps that show boundaries of where a species lives, and how ants may be moving in response to climate change and habitat loss.
If you are interested in joining the project, organize a team and apply: https://forms.gle/DhMQRUxY1z96mzrX7. We will review applications and select participants by the last week in June. Feel free to contact program administrator, Sharon Pepenella, at 516-367-5167 if you have any questions.