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Plant Life

Understanding the Rules of Life

Elucidating the sets of rules that predict an organism's observable characteristics, its phenotype.

Life on our planet is arranged in levels of organization ranging from the molecular scale through to the biosphere. There exists a remarkable amount of complexity in the interactions within and between these levels of organization and across scales of time and space.

For example, within an ecosystem, biotic, abiotic and environmental components of the system can all interact within a single process, as in the nitrogen cycle.

There also exists an equal amount of complexity within the cells that comprise every living thing within that ecosystem, from the transcription and translation of the organism's genome, to the way a cell creates usable forms of energy.

The NSF Rules of Life Big Idea has multiple goals:

  • To enable discoveries that will allow us to better understand such interactions and identify causal, predictive relationships across these scales -- so-called "rules" for how life functions;
  • To develop research tools and infrastructure
    • To further Rules of Life research
    • And to provide us with the capacity to approach more complex questions than ever before;
  • To train the next generation of researchers to approach scientific inquiry in a way that crosses scales and scientific disciplines;
  • And to foster collaboration and convergent research across the Foundation and beyond by helping us to consider multiple levels of organization and complexity in addressing key questions in the life sciences.

Though we're still learning to identify Rules of Life projects, they may have these characteristics:

  • Addresses a fundamental question in the life sciences
  • Crosses different scales (spatial, temporal, levels of biological organization and complexity)
  • Generates results that will be broadly generalizable beyond the system under investigation, so that a rule can be formulated
  • Enables the forecasting or prediction of change in a biological system

The predictive capability of the Rules of Life explored by such projects will enable us to address some of the greatest challenges we currently face in understanding the living world.






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