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Understanding the Rules of Life: Emergent Networks (URoL:EN)

Status: Archived

Archived funding opportunity

This document has been archived. See NSF 22-532 for the latest version.

Important information for proposers

All proposals must be submitted in accordance with the requirements specified in this funding opportunity and in the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) that is in effect for the relevant due date to which the proposal is being submitted. It is the responsibility of the proposer to ensure that the proposal meets these requirements. Submitting a proposal prior to a specified deadline does not negate this requirement.

Predicting Transformation of Living Systems in Evolving Environments


In 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) unveiled a set of "Big Ideas," 10 bold, long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering (see https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/big_ideas/index.jsp). The Big Ideas represent unique opportunities to position our Nation at the cutting edge of global science and engineering by bringing together diverse disciplinary perspectives to support convergence research. As such, when responding to this solicitation, even though proposals must be submitted to the Division of Emerging Frontiers in the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO/EF), once received, the proposals will be managed by a cross-disciplinary team of NSF Program Directors.

The Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype “Big Idea” is based on developing a predictive understanding of how key properties of living systems emerge from interactions of factors such as genomes, phenotypes, and evolving environments. This activity has launched a series of new research programs designed to elucidate “minimal rules” (building a synthetic cell), “rules of complexity” (epigenetics), and “rules of interaction” (microbiome). A list of Understanding the Rules of Life awards made thus far can be found on the NSF Awards Search.

This Understanding the Rules of Life: Emergent Networks (URoL:EN) solicitation adds to those previous foundational activities to now understand “rules of emergence” for networks of living systems and their environments. Emergent networks describe the interactions among organismal, environmental, social, and human-engineered systems that are complex and often unexpected given the behaviors of these systems when observed in isolation. The behavior of emergent networks of living systems depend on, but are not wholly predicted by, chemical and physical principles and unit-level biological properties (molecule/cell/organism/population), as well as communication and information flows among nodes in the network. Networks of living systems are reciprocally coupled with natural, built, and social environments in ways that are complex and difficult to predict. The often-unanticipated outcomes of these interactions can be both wide-ranging and enormously impactful. Prediction is further hampered by accelerating perturbations within evolving environments and the associated increase in the frequency of previously rare or extreme events. Determining the emergent properties of these networks, which arise from complex and nonlinear interactions among the different systems that in isolation do not exhibit such properties, is a critical and unsolved problem. One of many examples of this could include the emerging network of interactions across scales that arose from the arrival of the nonnative pathogen, Cryphonectria parasitica, or Chestnut blight, introduced with nursery stock. This pathogen effectively eliminated a dominant overstory tree species, American chestnut (Castanea dentata), across North America and had concomitant impacts on and feedbacks between biotic, abiotic, and social networks. For example, the economic impacts of this pathogen ranged from local agricultural and social impacts to global scale impacts on the timber industry. 

Successful projects of the URoL:EN program are expected to use convergent approaches that explore emergent network properties of living systems across various levels of organizational scale and, ultimately, contribute to understanding the rules of life through new theories and reliable predictions about the impact of specific environmental changes on behaviors of complex living systems, or engineerable interventions and technologies based on a rule of life to address associated outcomes for societal benefit.

The convergent scope of URoL:EN projects also provides unique STEM education and outreach possibilities to train the next generation of scientists in a diversity of approaches and to engage society more generally. Hence, the URoL:EN program encourages research projects that integrate training and outreach activities in their research plan, provide convergent training opportunities for researchers and students, develop novel teaching modules, and broaden participation of under-represented groups in science.

The URoL:EN Program will support projects with a total budget of up to $3,000,000 and an award duration of up to 5 years.

Program contacts

Betsy von Holle
e-networks@nsf.gov (703) 292-4974 BIO/DEB
Jeremy Guinn
e-networks@nsf.gov (703) 292-8193 EHR/HRD
Grace M. Hwang
e-networks@nsf.gov (703) 292-4271 ENG/CBET
Hector Munoz-Avila
e-networks@nsf.gov (703) 292-4481 CISE/IIS
Dena M. Smith-Nufio
e-networks@nsf.gov (703) 292-7431 GEO/EAR
Trisha Van Zandt
e-networks@nsf.gov (703) 292-7437 SBE/BCS
Junping Wang
e-networks@nsf.gov (703) 292-4488 MPS/DMS

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