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Collaborative team awarded $12.5 million for new NSF Biology Integration Institute


The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a five-year, $12.5 million grant to integrate biology to a collaborative team based in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The new institute, Genomics and Eco-evolution of Multi-scale Symbioses (GEMS), will include molecular, organismal, computational and theoretical approaches. 

An interdisciplinary team of 27 professors from microbiology, plant biology, entomology, ecology, evolution, computational biology, and education, led by microbiology professor Rachel Whitaker (IGOH leader/BCXT), evolution, ecology and behavior professor Carla Cáceres (IGOH), and plant biology professor Katy Heath (IGOH) from University of Illinois, ecology and evolution professor Mercedes Pascual from University of Chicago, and biology professor Irene Newton from Indiana University, will integrate recent discoveries about the impact of microbial symbiosis on evolution and ecology. 

“The inspiration behind GEMS is to integrate biology since all too often, fields of biology are siloed by funding, approach, language and culture,” said Whitaker. “Surprisingly, some of the most significant divides on many campuses are between molecular and organismal approaches to biology. Because microbes lie at the interface between these spheres, our focus is on bringing the natural microbial world into view to integrate biology.”

“Symbiosis is the process where two organisms come together to form emergent traits that neither has alone. GEMS recognizes that all around us there are nested symbiosis, with microbes like bacteria and viruses at their center,” said Whitaker. “We see this in many ways as conceptually similar to bringing together molecular and organismal approaches into a unified biology.” 

“We seek to better understand the complex web of interactions that underlies the functioning of ecological systems,” said Pascual. “Through symbioses in the broad sense of the word, the microbial world with its vast diversity changes how we need to address interactions between hosts.”

“Symbioses already unify biology as nearly every living animal and plant harbors a microbial symbiont and each of our cells harbors the remnants of an ancient symbiont – the mitochondrion,” said Newton. “It's clear that symbioses have dramatically altered the evolution of life on the planet and that they continue to have strong eco-evo influences on life.”

The work will also include University of North Carolina, Greensboro; the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, Michigan State University; the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; and the National Center for Genome Analysis Support (NCGAS), Indiana University. Partners in outreach endeavors include local Illinois school districts, Project Microbe (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), Cena y Ciencias (University of Illinois), the Illinois chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the Jim Holland Program at Indiana University, and the Marine Biological Lab (MBL).

NSF support will allow this team to work toward a bold vision that not only uses the study of symbiosis to integrate across science, but to port the best approaches across these institutions, to thoughtfully and effectively engage K-12 students and the broader public, and to break down historical barriers to creative and groundbreaking idea generation.

“What we don't truly understand is how genetic and molecular mechanisms used by microbes to interact with their hosts translates to large scale ecological and evolutionary processes,” said Newton. “With this institute, we will study biology at multiple scales (from genetic and microbial to organismal, ecological, and evolutionary) and involve multiple disciplines within and outside of biology to fill these gaps in knowledge.”

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