UC San Diego gets $15 million crypto donation to research airborne disease

UC San Diego's Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier.
(Courtesy of UCSD Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Cryptocurrency billionaire Vitalik Buterin helps establish UC San Diego’s new Meta-Institute for Airborne Disease in a Changing Climate


UC San Diego has received a $15 million donation in cryptocurrency to help boost research into airborne disease, university officials announced Tuesday.

The gift came from Vitalik Buterin, the world’s youngest crypto billionaire whose vaunted tech company Ethereum moves money around the globe. The 29-year-old entrepreneur stressed the importance of public health initiatives that share data freely.

“Over the last several years, it has become abundantly apparent that we need more open-source scientific research to better understand airborne pathogens and pollutants and how they affect us,” said Buterin in a press statement.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCSD plans to use the cash injection to help launch its new Meta-Institute for Airborne Disease in a Changing Climate. The interdisciplinary initiative will focus on aerosolized pathogens and their potential health impacts, from allergies and asthma to fast-spreading diseases.

Questions include: How long do airborne microbes survive? How far can they travel? Are there global hotspots for airborne pathogens?

The institute will be housed at the university’s School of Biological Sciences, led by researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the School of Physical Sciences. Rommie Amaro, professor of theoretical and computational chemistry and co-director of the Visible Molecular Cell Consortium, will help lead the project.

The institute will investigate the health impacts of inhaling aerosolized bacteria, viruses and waterborne pollution, Amaro said. “One of the most exciting aspects of this effort is the bringing together of top scientists from diverse disciplines to answer questions that until now few have ever even thought to ask.”

Atmospheric chemist Kim Prather, the founding director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment, will also help spearhead the new effort.

“Working together with health care experts, infectious disease doctors, engineers, respiratory experts and scientists, we will be developing state-of-the-art measurements and computational tools to study these problems,” Prather said. “A major goal is to develop a better understanding of the production and sources of airborne bioparticles and how long they remain infectious.”

Prather’s work recently linked sewage pollution leaking over the border from Tijuana to airborne bacteria in Imperial Beach.

The $15 million donation is one of the largest cryptocurrency gifts made to an American university, officials said. The gift was exchanged into dollars through a local company that services nonprofits.