MSU Awarded $25 million for NSF Center to Study Evolution in Action

MSU will use a $25 million grant from the NSF to establish a center that will bring together scientists from across the nation to study evolution in action in both natural and virtual settings.

March 22, 2010

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Richard Lenski

Michigan State University will use a $25 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish a center that will bring together scientists from across the nation to study evolution in action in both natural and virtual settings.

MSU has been awarded one of five NSF Science and Technology Centers, officially titled "BEACON, an NSF Science and Technology Center for the Study of Evolution in Action." It will serve as a resource for academics and industry, performing basic research while helping create new technologies to solve real-world problems ranging from the development of safer, more efficient cars to systems that detect computer intrusions.

BEACON is short for "Bio/computational Evolution in Action CONsortium."

"BEACON will conduct research on fundamental evolutionary dynamics in both natural and artificial systems," said Erik Goodman, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the center. "In addition, we will educate a generation of multidisciplinary scientists and improve public understanding of evolution at all levels."

In contrast to evolutionary studies focusing on fossil records or comparison of DNA among species to discover common ancestry, BEACON will focus on evolution as an ongoing process, using real organisms in laboratories and at field sites, and using digital organisms undergoing real evolution on computers.

BEACON will involve more than 30 MSU researchers in the colleges of Engineering, Natural Science, and Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Lyman Briggs College.

Four other universities are partnering with MSU: North Carolina A&T State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington.

"We have an incredible opportunity now for the two-way flow of ideas and methods between biology and engineering," said co-principal investigator Richard Lenski, MAES researcher and Hannah professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. "We can use deep biological principles to stimulate innovation in computational realms and, at the same time, use the speed and precision of computers to explore open questions in biology."

BEACON will promote the transfer of discoveries from biology into computer science and engineering design while using novel computational methods and systems to address complex biological questions that are difficult or impossible to study with natural organisms.

"The problems we face and the questions we seek to answer are far too complex to fit into traditional academic frames," MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said. "This program will demonstrate again how we at MSU apply unique cross-cutting approaches to more fully understand the sublime processes that shape us and our world."

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