understanding life
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The work of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to advance science is charted here, with a focus on the work of their Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) in enabling discoveries for understanding life

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created back in 1950 by U.S. Congress, “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defence”. We know that NSF is crucial because they support basic research and the people that do this to create knowledge that changes the future. (1) The number of research areas supported by the NSF is staggering and includes Biological Sciences (BIO), Education and Human Resources (HER), Geosciences (GEO), Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBBE).

Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO)

Looking at just one of these areas, let’s take a look now at the mission of the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) and some examples of the excellent work they support. In short, their work essentially enables discoveries for understanding life itself, indeed, BIO-supported research furthers the frontiers of knowledge when it comes to biology, as well as increasing the understanding of complex systems and supplying a theoretical basis for original research in numerous other disciplines of science.

Within the remit of BIO, research studies encompass biological molecules, communities, cells, organs, organisms, populations, tissues and ecosystems up to and incorporating the global biosphere. The website of BIO provides us with an excellent overview of the major challenges of reaching a coherent understanding of life itself.

“This challenge will require that knowledge about the structure and dynamics of individual biological units, networks, sub-systems and systems be compiled and connected from the molecular to the global level and across scales of time and space. Integral to all activities across the directorate is a commitment to integrate research and education, broaden participation, and promote international partnerships.” (2)

In terms of the leadership, we find out that in February this year, the NSF selects D. Joanne Tornow to serve as Head of the Directorate for BIO. Her wealth of experience at NSF includes a focus on accountability, as well as supporting cross-disciplinary, convergent research that plays on the strengths of scientists and engineers to solve problems.

“Dr Tornow is an experienced manager who brings a wealth of knowledge to BIO and the NSF leadership team”, says NSF Director France Córdova. “Joanne has spent the past year leading BIO in an acting capacity and has already demonstrated that this critical component of NSF is in good hands. I look forward to seeing BIO’s progress under her leadership.”

We know that exciting discoveries from NSF-funding include unearthing a new branch on the tree of life with archaea, the revolutionary CRISPR genome editing tool, as well as advancing other scientific areas, and enhancing other fields and making new ones.

“I fell in love with biology in the ninth grade and have been a biologist ever since. I have a long history with the BIO directorate, a place that was my first home at NSF and one of my favourite places to work,” Tornow comments. “I am honoured to lead BIO at a particularly exciting time of discovery across the spectrum of the biological sciences.” (3)

There are a number of interesting examples of how this support for the biological sciences is being given in terms of projects funded. One is led by University at Buffalo physicist Andrea Markelz who reports the development of a method for rapidly measuring proteins’ unique vibrations. (4) By way of background, we know that proteins vibrate with microscopic motions that help them perform essential tasks like photosynthesis and from cell repair, which is true for the cells of every living organism – humans, bees, birds, roses and even bacteria.

New possibilities in biological research could occur, such as studying the microscopic motions of proteins in a more efficient way. The new technique could enable scientists to quickly assess whether pharmaceuticals designed to inhibit a protein’s vibrations are working. “Proteins are elegant and robust nanomachines that nature has developed”, explains Markelz, PhD, at the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “We know nature uses molecular motions to optimise these machines. By learning the underlying principles of this optimisation, we can develop new biotechnology for medicine, energy harvesting and even electronics.” (5)

There are so many other interesting examples of research funded this year, including a study which reveals the way in which a group of deep-sea microbes gives clues to the evolution of life on Earth, according to a paper in the ISME Journal. (6) Another example comes from Rice University and concerns protein signalling in the rapidly differentiating cells of embryos, which are believed to be more complex than previously thought. (7)

In closing, it’s amazing to think that the scope of this article only covers a fraction of the NSF’s wonderful work. If we think about the wider picture, we know that in fiscal year (FY) 2019, the NSF’s budget totals $8.1 billion. Add to this, the fact this funding reaches all 50 states of the U.S. to almost 2,000 universities, colleges and other respectable institutions. Every year, over 50,000 competitive proposals for funding are received by the NSF. 12,000 new funding awards are made annually. Fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, including the biological sciences is set to continue into the future. (8)



1 https://www.nsf.gov/about/

2 https://www.nsf.gov/bio/about.jsp

3 https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=297642&org=BIO&from=news

4 https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=297928&org=MCB&from=news

5 http://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2019/03/002.html

6 https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=297707&org=MCB&from=news

7 https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=297918&org=MCB&from=news

8 https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=297928&org=MCB&from=news


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