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Kent Carpenter, an Old Dominion University marine biologist whose research in recent years has shed light on the remarkably high marine diversity of the Indo-Malay-Philippine Archipelago (IMPA), will expand upon that work as the lead principal investigator on a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) award will provide support over five years for scientists from 15 universities, including Duke, Penn State and NYU in the United States, and others in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Old Dominion University Research Foundation will administer the grant.

A main goal of the project is to determine why the IMPA has such rich diversity in fishes. New techniques in genetics and ocean current research will be put to use.

Carpenter was informed about the PIRE grant on Friday, June 29, one day after he got word that the NSF had funded another grant for which he is an investigator. Under this grant, which involves the evolution and diversity of Euteleostei ray-finned fishes, ODU will receive $383,000 over five years.

"I'm excited about both projects because they involve the three things I am most interested in: evolution of fishes, speciation in the marine environment and marine conservation," Carpenter said. The e-mails he was sending to colleagues and friends on Friday were headlined, "Unbelievable," reflecting his reaction to two awards in two days.

In reponse to the awards, Thomas L. Isenhour, the ODU provost, called Carpenter a "cutting-edge marine biologist" who is making major contributions to our understanding of systematics and evolution of marine fishes.

The NSF awards cap an extraordinary month for Carpenter's research. The Global Marine Species Assessments (GMSA) project, which he leads and is headquartered at ODU, received a $1 million shot in the arm in early June from one of its sponsoring organizations, the World Conservation Union. The GMSA also won worldwide media attention during the month from a warning it issued about the damage done to Caribbean coral by climate change, warmer waters and toxic runoffs.

Carpenter's past work with the World Conservation Union and Conservation International has included a focus on waters near the Philippines, where he has documented the existence of a region that has the richest shorefish biodiversity in the world.

When President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines signed an executive order Nov. 8, 2006, to strengthen environmental protections applying to waters of her archipelago nation, she was endorsing Carpenter's scientific research. His nearly 30 years of research in and around the Philippines resulted two years ago in a much-publicized finding-waters near the nation are the "center of the center" for world marine shorefish biodiversity.

The entire Indo-Malay-Philippine Archipelago (IMPA) has extreme marine biodiversity, but much more needs to be known about the reasons for this concentration. In fact, the origins of this biodiversity that Carpenter has helped to catalogue "remain one of the greatest evolutionary and biogeographical mysteries," according to a project summary he wrote for the NSF. One reason, he contended, is the "lack of a coordinated research and education effort focused on this question across the different countries and cultures of the IMPA."

Although the IMPA is the center of marine biodiversity, active research in this region is far less than that in the Great Barrier Reef and Caribbean regions, the summary asserts.

By joining forces, researchers from the United States and the IMPA countries can overcome bureaucratic roadblocks, cultural and linguistic differences and difficulties in identifying local collaborators that have plagued IMPA marine research in the past, the summary adds. The researchers will employ a novel multidisciplinary approach that combines geospatial modeling of ocean currents with comparative population genetics.

"Better understanding of the origins of marine life in the IMPA will lead to a better understanding of the evolution of biodiversity on the planet and how to safeguard this biodiversity," according to the summary. The title of the $2.5 million grant is: "Origins of High Marine Biodiversity in the Indo-Malay-Philippine Archipelago: Transforming a Biodiversity Hotspot into a Research and Education Hotspot."

The U.S. Peace Corps, which sent Carpenter to the Philippines more than 30 years ago for the volunteer assignment that sparked his interest in the nation's marine environment, is a partner on the grant. So is Conservation International, which has supported Carpenter's research in recent years.

For the other project, "Collaborative Research: Assembling Euteleost Tree of Life-Addressing the Major Unresolved Problem in Vertebrate Phylogeny," Carpenter will work with scientists at eight universities to answer questions about the crown group of ray-finned fishes.

The 17,500 species of euteleosts include virtually all of the fish that are commercially harvested. Despite their popularity on the dinner table, however, the phylogenetic relationships among many euteleost taxa remain unresolved at the level of order, suborder and family, Carpenter said. By generating DNA sequence data for most of the species and comparing morphological characteristics, the researchers propose to advance scientific understanding of the evolution of fish diversity and to revise the systematics of euteleosts.

Educational aspects of the grant include the production of a fish diversity guidebook for upper-elementary and middle school students, and the development of a Web page at http://fishtree.org.

This article was posted on: July 2, 2007

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