NSF News

New center supported by NSF will catalyze data-driven insights in molecular and cellular biosciences

The U.S. National Science Foundation has made a $20 million award to support the creation of the National Synthesis Center for Emergence in the Molecular and Cellular Sciences (NCEMS). The center will combine vast amounts of available data on molecular and cellular systems with diverse research expertise and computational resources to understand how and why new properties and phenomena emerge in biological systems at different scales of composition, space, time, energy, information and motion.

NCEMS will be led by Penn State, with cyberinfrastructure provided by the NSF-supported CyVerse at the University of Arizona. It will focus initially on the mesoscale, the level of biological organization between molecules and larger, more complex components of cells. The center will support collaborative and open science and provide training in data science, machine learning and statistical and systems modeling to create a broad and inclusive community of scientists, postdoctoral scholars and student researchers spanning many disciplines, including genomics, cell biology, biophysics and synthetic biology.

"The amount of publicly available data at the molecular and cellular scale is extensive, with each individual resource being valuable. Bringing those data together with the tools to synthesize them ― as this center is planned to do ― will create a whole greater than the parts and will drive advances in biology, biomedicine, renewable energy and more," said NSF Deputy Assistant Director for Biological Sciences Simon Malcomber. "This is the first time we will bring this approach to the molecular and cellular sciences and bring NSF's long history of support for Synthesis Centers to bear on the field."

To enable scientific communities to make use of the wealth of existing and future data, NCEMS will offer services, tools and cyberinfrastructure that remove barriers to large-scale information synthesis. The center will also establish practices that prioritize integration and reuse of data and promote a culture that values existing data as much as new data in primary research.

Through partnerships with minority-serving institutions, NCEMS will work to broaden participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, both to democratize access to research and to provide training for careers rich in computational and data sciences. Initial partner institutions include Claflin University, Alcorn State University and Fayetteville State University. An innovative, remote research experience program will support synthesis research by students nationwide.

The Directorate for Biological Sciences has previously supported several Synthesis Centers focusing on biological sciences and the intersections of biology and other fields, the most recent being the Environmental Data Science Innovation & Inclusion Lab. Synthesis Centers do not directly support generation of new data but rather are dedicated to facilitating integration and synthesis of available data by multidisciplinary research teams to address compelling scientific questions.