Gila Monster genome project uses crowdfunding to learn the reptile’s secrets

Two ASU professors have launched a crowd-funding campaign to help start a Gila Monster Genome project. (Photo courtesy of Dale Denardo/ASU)

Dale Denardo is one of the ASU professors hoping to start a Gila Monstor Genome project that will help to document the lizard’s unique traits and study the animal more closely. (Photo by Nick Pope/Cronkite News)

Melissa Wilson Sayers explains that the project’s goals are to find which genes are unique to the Gila monster and which genes are shared with other reptiles. (Photo by Nick Pope/Cronkite News)

The Gila monster is a unique reptile that is native to Arizona, and now two ASU professors are attempting to learn more about it.

“A Gila monster is the largest lizard that lives in the United States,” said Melissa Wilson Sayers, a computational Biologist at ASU. “It is one of only two venomous lizards in the world.”

Wilson Sayers started a crowd-funding page in early April, looking to create a reference genome for the animal. Her collaborator, Dale Denardo, an environmental physiologist at ASU, says the genome would give them further knowledge of the Gila monster’s unique traits.

“The genome is a tool that enables you to look at several different things,” said Denardo. “Types of genes that are activated, which genes they have, and how they compare to other species. There are a lot of things that can be accomplished by looking at the genome.”

While Denardo has been studying the Gila monster for years, and says that it can provide further knowledge of other animals as well.

“I started getting interested and I realized there actually a great study system, to really understand how animals balance resource needs,” Denardo said.

Wilson Sayers specializes in sex chromosome study. Her interest in the reptile will help her future work with other animals.

“The goal of this project is to one, try to understand which parts of the Gila monster are unique to the Gila monster, ” said Wilson Sayers. “Plus, which parts are shared with other reptiles.”

The cost of such a project can range from $25,000 to $30,000. However, Wilson Sayers found a creative way to earn the funds.

“What we’re trying to do is split it up into smaller pieces,” said Wilson Sayers. “You can break up a genome project into smaller chunks, and what we’re doing here is funding the first chunk of the Gila monster genome.”

The initial chunk of $9,000 was reached in mid-April. The current total is $9,518. To back this project, visit their crowd-funding page.