Microbes and communities of microbes have remarkable genetic, physiological and biochemical diversity, allowing them to flourish in environments all over the planet and in a variety of substrates and hosts. Given their relative importance to ecosystems around the world, to the economy and to health, researchers have studied microbial systems extensively and have a better understanding of their capabilities and impacts on hosts and the environment. In recent years, researchers have increasingly turned to microbes and their diverse capabilities for bioremediation and applications in biotechnology, agriculture, and medicine. Because of advances in molecular biology, synthetic biology and bioengineering, researchers now have the ability to assemble synthetic microbial communities that have novel compositions, genetics and phenotypes and to use these communities to address both fundamental biological questions and a range of societal problems. The goal of this solicitation is to support research that addresses one or more of the three themes: 1) define the underlying mechanisms or rules that drive the formation, maintenance or evolution of synthetic microbial communities, 2) use synthetic microbial communities to address fundamental biological questions, including questions in molecular biology, cellular/organismal biology, ecology and evolution and/or 3) build synthetic communities with biotechnology, bioeconomy or environmental engineering applications, including but not limited to the production of novel biorenewable chemicals, biodegradation of recalcitrant or “forever chemicals,” enabling a circular bioeconomy, fostering sustainable agriculture and mitigating the impacts of climate change. For theme 3, the emphasis should be on designing communities with novel capabilities and understanding the underlying mechanisms that lead to these novel capabilities.
Proposals must address one or more of the three themes noted above. Highest funding priority is given to proposals that have outstanding intellectual merit and broader impacts, while proposals with weaknesses in either category (or those that are perceived as likely to have an incremental impact) will not be competitive. The most competitive broader impacts include assessment plans. Well-conceived broader impacts activities take time and resources; thus, proposers are encouraged to include appropriate costs for broader impacts in the budget.
To better understand the societal benefits and risks, as well as the potential for misuse or unintended damage to natural biological systems, synthetic microbial communities proposals should include a careful consideration of the social, ethical, and biosafety/security dimensions of the research. Investigators may choose to address these issues either as part of intellectual merit or broader impacts.
Reproducibility in research leads to data that is amenable to more powerful analysis and the potential for reuse of data and greater generation of knowledge. Reproducibility in biological research that is prone to context dependent biological variation presents a unique challenge for the synthetic microbial communities researchers. Investigators must follow or advance best practices in sample collection and preparation, experimental design, data analysis, model generation, and/or validation of mathematical and computational methods to produce scientifically defensible results.