Discovery Files

'Rules of Life' outlines path to predicting phenotype

NSF-produced audio documentary envisions future where scientists can predict how cells, brains, bodies and biomes will react to changing environments

Listen to the Rules of Life (MP3) and find the full transcript at this link.

Imagine a world where scientists can predict with confidence whether crops will grow in extreme temperatures, just by understanding their genetic makeup. Consider a future where doctors can know what cells will become malignant, well before they have the chance to develop into cancerous growths.

"In that world, we can make a better life for us all," says James Olds, head of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Biological Sciences Directorate. "We can provide a safe and stable food supply. We can use the body's own immune system to defeat cancer."

The NSF-produced audio documentary "The Rules of Life" shows how NSF and the research community are working toward building that world, by solving the riddle of predicting phenotype.

The biggest gap in biological knowledge is our inability to look at an organism's genetics and environment and predict its observable characteristics, or phenotype. Bridging that gap would open new doors for research that can address some of society's biggest challenges, including curing diseases and increasing food crop yields.

"Imagine someone watching a game of chess, but they don't know the rules," Olds says. "They can't possibly predict with any confidence what a player's next move might be. Likewise, without knowing the basic rules of how genes function and interact with the environment, we cannot predict with any certainty what life's next move will be."

"Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype" is one of NSF's "Big Ideas for Future Investments," a set of research agendas that would ensure future generations reap the benefits of science and engineering.

"The goal of this big idea is to address how we predict the phenotype, the structure, function and behavior of an organism, based on what we know about its genes and environment," Olds says. "If we can identify some of the basic rules of life across scales of time, space and complexity, we may be able to predict how cells, brains, bodies and biomes will respond to changing environments."

The "Rules of Life" audio documentary is available to radio stations and media outlets for broadcast. For more information, contact NSF.