NSF News

New interdisciplinary research seeks to explain the rules that govern life

The U.S. National Science Foundation is advancing interdisciplinary research into epigenetics and the microbiome to understand the sets of rules that predict an organism’s observable characteristics — its phenotype — and to use those rules to address some of the greatest challenges in understanding the living world. The results will lead to new discoveries that advance convergence science and technology research, yielding a better understanding of the relationships among an organism’s genotype, phenotype, and environment.

“Understanding how an organism’s environment impacts its genome is key to understanding the world around us and harnessing the innovation in that world to better society,” said Joanne Tornow, assistant director for biological sciences. “The interdisciplinary research helps us understand the mechanisms that govern that genome-environment interaction and benefit fields from health and medicine to agriculture and national security.”

To accelerate interdisciplinary research into epigenetics and the microbiome, NSF is pleased to announce 41 new awards to 65 scientists, with a total investment of $40 million over five years.

Understanding the Rules of Life: Epigenetics — Scientists supported by this program are asking questions such as: how the features of a cell’s nucleus regulate gene expression, how high temperatures impact modifications in RNA to promote or decrease adaptability, and how changing ocean conditions alter the development and immune function of marine organisms such as sea urchins.

Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Theory and Mechanisms — This program examines the role of light in microbiome communities; communication between members of the microbiome and their host, such as corals and fish;  how microbiomes assemble and how they impact plants, mammals, and other organisms; and in what way microbiomes affect the environment and ecosystems.

The projects will create science curricula for K-12 and undergraduate courses; train high school, undergraduate, and graduate students; offer workshops for teachers; and develop outreach materials, including videos and video games.

Learn more about NSF’s Big Ideas, the Understanding the Rules of Life: Epigenetics and Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Theory and Mechanisms program and view the full list of awards by visiting nsf.gov.