NSF News

Cross-disciplinary research teams seek to answer grand challenges in biology

Biology continues to transform science through discoveries that cross disciplines and scales from the molecular to the planetary level. Despite these advances, biology has also fragmented into subdisciplines, creating a gap between individual scientists, who focus on narrow questions, and the societal need to understand overarching rules of life. To reverse this trend, the U.S. National Science Foundation is establishing Biology Integration Institutes that bring together teams of researchers to investigate interdisciplinary questions, while also training and broadening the participation of future scientists in this integrated approach. The program's first cohort includes four such institutes.

The institutes will engage 95 researchers and over 100 postdoctoral trainees, graduate students and undergraduates. The research will use innovative approaches to understand principles across multiple levels of life — from molecules to biomes — and across space and time. The program is also funding 11 design awards to develop groundbreaking ideas that may eventually result in additional institutes.

"Over the last 3.5 billion years, life on Earth has innovated and evolved to address the challenge of persisting on this planet. To discover, understand and harness those innovations and tackle fundamental biological questions, researchers from within and outside of biology must come together and engage in integrative research," said NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences Joanne Tornow. "The institutes, each funded for $12.5 million over five years, are a prime example of that necessary integration."

The four implementation awards are:

  • The Emergent Ecosystem Responses to Change Institute, led by researchers at Ohio State University, will integrate insights from biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, physiology, ecology, evolution and ecosystem science to predict how a rapidly warming Arctic will impact Earth's climate. The study will provide a framework for assessing microbial change in other ecosystems where such systems-level data is being collected, including NSF Long-term Ecological Research sites and the National Ecological Observatory Network.
  • The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities-based institute will bring an interdisciplinary approach to study the causes and consequences of plant biodiversity across scales in a rapidly changing world. Researchers will measure individual plants and landscape vegetation from the genetic to biosphere levels to develop a theory of how variation within and among biological scales drives plant and ecosystem responses to global change over time.
  • Genomics and Eco-evolution of Multi-Scale Symbiosis, led by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will examine the interaction between clover and honeybees as a model to understand the dynamics of the microbes nested within them, and how molecular interactions impact the ecosystem and develop predictive models of symbioses broadly. The outcomes could provide insight relevant to the $20 billion U.S. honey industry.
  • The Behavioral Plasticity Research Institute, led by scientists at Baylor University College of Medicine, will investigate how and why the density of locusts and grasshoppers influences the behavior of the insects — an example of phenotypic plasticity. The research — which will incorporate genomics, nutritional physiology, and ecology — will lay the groundwork for studying phenotypic plasticity in other organisms.

Learn more about Biology Integration Institutes and view the full list of design awards by visiting nsf.gov.