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Directorate for Biological Sciences

George W. Gilchrist
ggilchri@nsf.gov, (703) 292-7138

The BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action is an NSF Science and Technology Center founded with the mission of illuminating and harnessing the power of evolution in action to advance science and technology and benefit society. BEACON is a consortium of universities led by Michigan State University, with partner institutions of North Carolina A&T State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Washington. BEACON unites biologists, computer scientists and engineers in joint study of natural and artificial evolutionary processes and in harnessing them to solve real-world problems. Evolution by natural selection is an algorithm: any system that possesses replication, variation, and competition has the potential to adapt in response to the relevant external variables affecting the system.  Developers of evolutionary algorithms have long borrowed these concepts from biology to improve problem-solving methods, but have not captured the nuances of evolutionary theory. Likewise, studying the evolution of artificial systems can provide biologists with insight into the dynamics of the evolutionary process and the critical factors underlying emergent properties and behaviors. BEACON promotes the transfer of discoveries from biology into computer science and engineering design, while using novel computational methods and artificial evolutionary systems to address complex biological questions that are difficult or impossible to study with natural organisms.

As biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously noted, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Beacon's vision focuses that light, illuminating both fundamental biological concepts and innovative computational applications. The key insight underlying the Center is that transformative discoveries in both computing and biology are possible through studying evolution as it happens, in both natural and digital domains. BEACON will train multi-disciplinary scientists to capitalize on these discoveries and to promote research on evolutionary dynamics in both natural and artificial systems. In addition to these scientific goals, the BEACON center educates the public about evolution and its role in solving real-world problems and provides significant educational resources for K12 students and museums. Computational tools produced by BEACON scientists will be broadly disseminated to allow a wide variety of users to incorporate these methods into their research. More information can be found at the Beacon website.

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