“‘Sequence the mascot’s genome!’ is not a cry one usually hears coming from a university,” said UC Santa Cruz alumnus Ken Wagman. “It’s not the usual way to support your school.”
As a leader in genomics, UCSC started a campaign to sequence the mascot’s genome. A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, which contains information about an organism’s design and how it functions.
In 2000, the UCSC Genome Bioinformatics Group released the first working draft of the human genome and in 2003, UCSC researchers helped with the completion of the human genome sequence. The completed sequence is accessible online to scientists all over the world through the UCSC Genome Browser.
Every year, UCSC hosts DNA Day to celebrate accomplishments in the field of genomics. For UCSC Genomics Institute development and communications director Branwyn Wagman, DNA Day seemed to be missing something important.
“Sammy the Slug goes to every DNA Day,” Branwyn Wagman said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Sammy could hold up a poster about the banana slug genome?”
This question shared between wife and husband Branwyn and Ken Wagman launched the project to sequence the genome of the Ariolimax dolichophallus, or what is more commonly known as the banana slug. They took the idea to the UCSC Genomics Institute scientific director David Haussler, who was enthusiastic about the project.
Without financial backing from the university, the $20,000 project will be funded by a crowdfunding campaign started on Oct. 21 with the release of a video starring Branwyn and Ken Wagman explaining the reasons for the campaign. The campaign raised $2,013 in the first day and donations will be accepted online until Nov. 20. The money will be put toward the resources and time needed to sequence the genome during winter quarter.
“We are the campus that is leading the whole genomics charge worldwide and we haven’t even sequenced our own mascot,” Ken Wagman said.
UCSC is a part of the Genome 10k Project, co-founded by Haussler. The project aims to sequence the genomes of 10,000 vertebrates to have a resource of genetic diversity. As an invertebrate, the banana slug would not be included in the project, Ken Wagman said.
The UCSC Genomics Institute’s sequencing experts Nader Pourmand and Mark Akeson with the help of undergraduates will begin to collect DNA and start the sequencing project. During spring quarter, a class will be offered for graduate students to assemble the genome sequence.
“With crowdfunding, you hope a lot of people participate,” Branwyn Wagman said. “If a lot of people participate we are going to get it easily. It’s just a matter of getting the word out so people know about it. We’re thinking about it not just as the university community but as the Santa Cruz community having interest. This is our way of showing school spirit.”
The push to sequence the genome is more than just a way to promote school spirit, Branwyn Wagman said. Long Marine Lab research associate Janet Leonard said banana slugs are interesting candidates for a genome study due to the existence of several closely related species. The San Francisco Peninsula alone has three of the eight species that are related genetically yet possess striking differences in anatomy and sexual behavior.
“By having the genome of one of them it would make it easy to compare the other species,” Leonard said. “With the sequence, we can understand what kind of genetic differences are involved in these differences in anatomy and behavior.”
Once the genome is sequenced, it will be put in the National Center for Biotechnology Information Database. Branwyn Wagman said the UCSC Genome Browser will take the data and turn it into a browser available to scientists all over the world.
The UCSC Genomics Institute will not only sequence the banana slug, but contribute to the conservation of animals worldwide as the institute unlocks the mysteries inside an animal’s sequence.
“It’s an exciting opportunity,” Leonard said. “At first glance, it might look like an unlikely animal for advances in studying how genes determine morphology and behavior, but the project is going to be a nice step forward.”