Understanding NSF Research: Biology
Image Captions and Credits
NEON Ecological Observation
Sunrise at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) tower outside Barrow, Alaska. NEON is a continental-scale, ecological observation network, fully funded by NSF and operated by Battelle. NEON is part of a bold effort to understand and forecast continental-scale environmental change, inform natural resource decisions, and engage the next generation of scientists. NEON's 81 sites across the United States collect data on spatial and temporal scales that were previously unimaginable. The network was designed to address ecological "grand challenges" with data collected from a continental-scale network of field instruments, sensors and manual biological sampling.
Credit: Chris McKay, Battelle Memorial Institute
Understanding the Brain
MIT researchers have developed a new way to image proteins and RNA inside neurons of intact brain tissue. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds cross-disciplinary teams across the United States to conduct innovative research focused on neural and cognitive systems. The awards are part of NSF's investments in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) initiative. Aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, the BRAIN initiative accelerates development and application of innovative technologies so that researchers can produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.
Credit: Yosuke Bando, Fei Chen, Dawen Cai, Ed Boyden, and Young Gyu/MIT
By studying the motions of sidewinder rattlesnakes, a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech and Zoo Atlanta have developed a snake-like robot capable of exceptionable maneuverability. Snake robots may prove valuable for urban search-and-rescue operations and power plant inspections.
Credit: Carnegie Mellon University
Genomic Tools to Improve Agriculture
NSF's Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools (EDGE) program makes awards to develop genomic tools that will allow biologists to identify mechanisms that determine how genes affect an organism's physical and functional characteristics. This research will have a range of significant societal benefits that include predicting responses to changing environments, establishing more effective conservation efforts, and developing new medical approaches, new therapeutics and better crop yields.
Credit: Courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute
NSF macrosystems biology projects leverage NSF-funded biological infrastructure to study how organisms and ecosystems respond to environmental changes from local to continental scales. Most of these projects use data from NEON to address long-standing questions that could not be addressed even five years ago, without access to standardized, replicated, publicly available ecological data from ecosystems across North America. This research will address longstanding, multi-scaled environmental problems, including the global impact of wildfires and the rapidly changing Arctic.
Semiconductor Synthetic Biology
To address a worldwide need for data storage that far outstrips today's capabilities, federal agencies and a technology research consortium are investing in new research through the Semiconductor Synthetic Biology for Information Processing and Storage Technologies (SemiSynBio) program. The goal is to create storage systems that integrate synthetic biology with semiconductor technology. For example, researchers have been using DNA, the essential molecule for coding genetic information in biology, as a programmable building block — a molecular LEGO — to create sophisticated materials with custom-designed functions.
Credit: Yonggang Ke, Biomedical Engineering Department, Emory University and Georgia Tech
Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases
A joint NSF, National Institutes of Health, and U.S. Department of Agriculture program, Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) supports efforts to understand the underlying ecological and biological mechanisms behind human-induced environmental changes, and the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. Projects funded through the EEID program allow scientists to study how large-scale environmental events — such as habitat destruction, invasions of non-native species and pollution — alter the risks of viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases in humans and other animals.
Fundamental Brain and Nervous System Research
Glowing red, green and blue, the nerve fibers in this five-day-old zebrafish provide a map of early brain development. Neurobiologists study the structural anatomy of a range of organisms from fruitflies to mice to better understand learning and memory with the goal of applying biological principles to build brain-machine interface technology.
Credit: HHMI Janelia Research Campus, Scientific Computing Software
Dimensions of Biodiversity
Despite centuries of discovery, most of our planet's biodiversity remains unknown. The scale of the unknown diversity on Earth is especially troubling given the rapid and permanent loss of biodiversity across the globe. NSF is funding research to study processes in nature and their complex interactions with climate, land use and invasive species at local, regional and continental scales. Coral reef habitats are one such area of study. Here, a group of fish swim over a healthy coral reef in the Line Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.
Credit: Brian Zgliczynski
MacroSystems Biology that "Connects the Dots"
NSF supports macrosystems biology and NEON projects to better detect, understand and predict the effects of climate and land-use changes on organisms and ecosystems at large scales.
Credit: Teri Virbickis/Shutterstock.com