These questions are among those to be pursued by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) new Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) program, which today announced its first six five-year projects. Totaling $30 million, they employ boldly creative approaches, integrate a variety of disciplines, and draw expertise from a variety of institutions to address grand challenges.
The FIBR projects also draw upon recent breakthroughs in biology, such as genomics, enhanced information technology, high-throughput instrumentation, imaging and wireless technologies, sophisticated sensors, improved geographic information systems and other advances of the past decade.
"An important feature of biology in the 21st century is the opportunity to set aside barriers and tackle some of the most important and fundamental questions in biology," said Mary Clutter, NSF's Assistant Director for Biology. "FIBR is one of the ways we're supporting researchers who are moving the frontiers forward and who are training a new generation of scientists who will not be limited by disciplinary boundaries"
To approach such big questions, NSF's new FIBR program sets its sights on some very small organisms.
For example, one project - titled "The Evolution of Biological Social Systems" - will examine the reproduction of a slime mold, particularly why some individual cells in this community of amoebas give up their chance to reproduce so they can support the chances of others. Another, exploring how ecology and molecular genetics interact in the creation of new species, will focus on Mimulus, a genus more commonly known as monkey-flowers.
One will examine the causes and consequences of genetic recombination in reproduction - or, succinctly, "Why sex?" - by tracking generations of Daphnia, tiny freshwater crustaceans also known as water fleas.
With a botanical bent, another FIBR project will begin creating a "computable plant" by coupling genetic data, mathematical models and laboratory studies to trace the cellular developments that lead to the formation of leaves, flowers and other structures.
Two FIBR efforts will take a microbial view.
In one, scientists will grapple with the genetic, ecological and evolutionary consequences of infection by Wolbachia, parasitic bacteria found in many insects. Specifically, they will examine how these bacteria move between species and influence the genomes of their hosts.
Another project builds upon recent discoveries from the vibrant, fuming thermal springs of Yellowstone. It will evaluate whether traditional species concepts apply to microorganisms or whether exchange of DNA in "horizontal," uninherited ways may require a new intellectual framework for how genomes and microbial populations evolve.
Each FIBR project integrates varied expertise from as many as eight different universities and research institutes.
Combined, the six projects support 51 investigators from 14 U.S. states. Scientists supported by four other countries are also participating.
The six projects were selected from more than 114 proposals, about 30 of which were expanded and received additional scrutiny by a 16-member panel representing an array of institutions and disciplines.
To foster the assembly of ideas to develop future complex, multidisciplinary FIBR collaborations, NSF awarded five other research groups one-year planning grants. Those involve 43 investigators in 10 states.
The FIBR projects announced today include the following (see separate profiles for more detail):
- "The Evolution of Biological Social Systems," examining slime molds to study the evolution of biological social systems; Rice University (lead) and Baylor College of Medicine.
- "Integrated Ecological and Genomic Analysis of Speciation in Mimulus," examining monkeyflowers to study isolation, hybridization and other factors in species creation; Duke University (lead), University of Washington, Clemson University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Montana and Michigan State University.
- "Causes and Consequences of Recombination," focusing on Daphnia (water fleas) to study the mechanisms and impacts of genetic recombination; Indiana University (lead), University of Idaho, University of Illinois, University of New Hampshire, University of Edinburgh (Scotland), and Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute.
- "Developmental Modeling and Informatics," merging genetic data, marker proteins, modification of genes, mathematical models, and computerized visualization to create a "computable plant" and study the formation of plant structures; University of California-Irvine (lead), California Institute of Technology, Huntington Botanical Gardens and Institute for Cytology and Genetics (Novosibirsk, Russia).
- "Integrative Studies of Wolbachia-Eukaryotic Interactions: Genomes to Communities and Back," examining the host-parasite relationship of a wasp and bacterium to study the evolution of interacting genomes; University of Rochester (lead), American Museum of Natural History, University of California- Riverside, Oregon State University, University of California-Santa Cruz, Humboldt University (Germany), Yale University, and The Institute for Genomic Research.
- "Do Species Matter in Microbial Communities?" examining microbes from Yellowstone's thermal springs to understand the exchange of genetic material and its impact on concepts of species; Montana State University (lead), Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford University, Wesleyan University, The Institute for Genomic Research, University of Copenhagen and Lockheed Martin.
NSF Program Officer: Chris L. Greer, (703) 292-8470; email@example.com
Principal Investigators: Listed with individual project descriptions.
Pertinent NSF web sites:
FIBR program announcement: http://www.
Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research, listing of 2003 awards, links to abstracts: http://www.
FIBR planning grants: http://www.
Individual FIBR project web resources are listed with project descriptions.
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To obtain images related to each of the six inaugural Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research projects, see this web site: http://www.