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UC San Diego Professors Donate More than $1M Toward Humankind Origins Studies

Gift from Nissi and Ajit Varki will help support the UC San Diego/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA)

February 25, 2020  |  

The University of California San Diego announced a major gift made by Nissi and Ajit Varki, both professors at the university. The gift, made in 2017 of founder shares in SiaMAb, a company started by the Varkis, has been initially designated for the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA) to support a broad range of activities, including scholarly studies of the origins of humankind.

After the company was sold, the gift matured into a cash value in excess of $1.1 million. In the coming years, depending on future progress and revenue, the gift could provide additional millions that may be directed toward CARTA and/or other transdisciplinary activities that the Varkis have been involved with at UC San Diego during the last four decades.

Nissi Varki, MD

Nissi Varki, MD, professor of pathology.

Nissi Varki, MD, is a professor of pathology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Her husband, Ajit Varki, MD, is a Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular and Molecular Medicine and founding co-director of CARTA. During more than 35 years at UC San Diego, the couple have often found ways to complement their research efforts.

More than two decades ago, for example, the Varkis and colleagues discovered the first known functionally significant biochemical difference between humans and our closest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees: a CMAH gene deletion in humans, which chimps still possess. Since that time, the couple and collaborators have uncovered many examples of how this genetic difference and other related, uniquely human mutations affected human evolution and disease risk, ranging from the origins of our genus Homo and our greatly improved ability to run long distances to human’s propensity for developing heart attacks due to atherosclerosis and a likely explanation for why eating large amounts of red meat increases the risk of certain cancers and heart disease, but only in humans.

Dedication to such studies, supported by state and federal grants as well as the Mathers Foundation of New York, led the Varkis to look for a meaningful way to give back. Their work is part of a larger effort by CARTA members investigating the origins of humankind. CARTA brings together local, national and international experts from a wide array of scholarly backgrounds, including medicine, physical science, social science and the humanities. The Varkis emphasize that this kind of transdisciplinary collaboration would not have been possible in many scientific institutions other than UC San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Ajit Varki, MD

Ajit Varki, MD, Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular and Molecular Medicine.

The primary mission of CARTA is to seek answers to two of humanity’s oldest questions: “Where did we come from? How did we get here?” In practical terms, this knowledge can impact issues spanning medicine and biology, how societies are organized, how children are raised and how humans interact with one another and the environment. In contemporary terms, it could include investigating the impact of social media and artificial intelligence on the human mind or how global climate disruption can impact society.

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla praised the Varkis for their commitment to the university. “We are very fortunate to not only have Nissi and Ajit doing incredibly important work here, but now we will also benefit from their tremendous generosity. There can be no greater quest than investigating the origins of humankind and through this gift, the Varkis have provided much-needed support of that quest.”

Salk Institute President and CARTA Co-Director Fred Gage commented that “the remarkable generosity of Nissi and Ajit is a reflection of their commitment to academic research and training in understanding the origins of the human species. Their own scientific discoveries in this area have added enormously to this endeavor, but this gift allows the center they helped develop continue to have an international impact.”

Pascal Gagneux, PhD, professor of pathology and CARTA associate director said “Nissi’s and Ajit’s many discoveries have highlighted a true hotspot of human evolution with numerous ramifications for the human condition in health and disease. With unwavering support by leaders of UC San Diego Health Sciences and the Salk Institute, CARTA has reached out to scholars across the world, who now exchange diverse perspectives on human origins, sparking new research on how our species came to determine the fate of all other species on the planet.”

“We are honored the Varkis have chosen to support CARTA’s transdisciplinary mission of understanding our human origins,” said David Brenner, MD, vice chancellor, UC San Diego Health Sciences. “This transformational gift will ensure generations of scholars from diverse fields have the opportunity to explore one of history’s greatest mysteries.”

This gift of securities contributes to the Campaign for UC San Diego — a university-wide comprehensive fundraising effort concluding in 2022. Together with philanthropic partners, UC San Diego will continue its nontraditional path toward revolutionary ideas, unexpected answers, lifesaving discoveries and planet-changing impact. To learn more about how to support the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA), please visit and click on “Support.”

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Michelle Franklin

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