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FYI: NSF Success Stories

Metabolic Engineering
Cells from microbes, plants, and animals have long been recognized as having capabilities beneficial to humans. Cellular processes can help clean our environment; for example, portions of the Exxon Valdez oil spill were cleaned up by encouraging the growth of natural, oil-consuming microbes. Many of our current, most potent antibiotics are created in fungal fermentations and are routinely used in the battle against disease. In another example, the drug erythropoetin, which promotes red blood cell production, comes from hamster cells. Unfortunately, these minute cellular factories are often inefficient.

Metabolic engineering is the technology dealing with understanding of the natural biochemical or metabolic pathways of cells and altering those pathways to produce improved traits and chemistries. NSF has supported research into metabolic engineering for the past two decades.

One recent NSF award in metabolic engineering has gone to a biochemical engineer at Johns Hopkins University who has been working on using insect "factories" to produce proteins. Insect cells are much more efficient producers of therapeutic proteins than the currently used mammalian cells, but the sugar structures attached to the proteins are different than those produced by mammalian cell culture or in humans. This could lead to diminished drug activity and even a serious immune response from the body. NSF is funding research which has the goal of altering this sugar pathway to make it more "human-like."

A number of long-range NSF investments are starting to bear fruit. A young investigator at Stanford who has been studying genes in certain fungi and bacteria that are responsible for synthesizing antibiotics. By specifically altering the sets of genes, a series of over 100 structurally modified antibiotics have been prepared. The hope is that among these numerous modified products, several will be able to "trick" and kill common pathogens that have become resistant to conventional antibiotics. Indeed, at least two have looked attractive in preliminary screening and are being evaluated by pharmaceutical companies.

Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP)
Underrepresentation of minorities among the science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SMET) fields is a long-standing problem. This untapped talent has serious consequences for the nation’s ability to compete in the world economy driven by technological advances, as well as for a large segment of the nation’s citizens who suffer loss of opportunity. As part of ongoing efforts to address this problem, NSF initiated in 1990 the LSAMP program to focus on increasing the quality and quantity of students receiving baccalaureate degrees in SMET disciplines. LSAMP puts particular emphasis on students from groups that are consistently underrepresented in these fields. The long-range goal of this program is to increase the number of students continuing on to graduate schools for a doctorate degree in one of the SMET fields and who then choose to take faculty positions on college and university campuses. This multidisciplinary undergraduate program works by supporting undergraduate systemic reform through alliances that include partners from both two- and four-year higher education institutions, businesses and industries, national research laboratories, and local, state, and federal agencies.

Currently, 28 alliances, ranging from citywide (e.g., New York City, Detroit) to statewide (e.g., California, North Carolina) to multistate (e.g., Florida-Georgia), are supported by the LSAMP program.

One of the highly successful aspects of this program is faculty mentoring which pairs undergraduate students with a faculty member. This collaboration achieves a multiplier effect, resulting in personal and professional growth for undergraduates through research experiences including co-authoring scientific papers.

LSAMP also gives consideration to the critical transition points in SMET education such as high school-to-college, 2-year to 4-year college; undergraduate-to-graduate study; and graduate study-to-faculty career. Since NSF started the LSAMP, the number of B.S. degrees awarded to minority students has risen from under 4,000 in 1990 to over 20,000 in 1998 at participating institutions.

From ARPANET to Internet
By enabling commerce to be conducted over the World Wide Web, Internet-based technologies have demonstrably reshaped the economic landscape over the past few years. As consumers increasingly shop at home via their computers, companies are keeping pace by offering their products and services directly online. How did this transformation take place?

The first "e-mail" message was sent about 30 years ago via ARPANET, a four-site military computer network. NSF’s support for networking research over the years created NSFNET, a forerunner of the current Internet. By the late 1980s, NSFNET allowed academic researchers access to NSF’s supercomputing centers and to connect and communicate with each other.

NSF fostered the development of the current Internet by funding research on advanced Internet technologies, by strategically partnering with industry to provide newer and faster network services, and by allowing commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) access to the Internet. Ultimately, NSFNET was retired in 1995 and the entire Internet network was privatized.

Although NSF is no longer "managing" the Internet, it continues to be heavily involved with supporting networking research. One project conducted by the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) is an effort to develop and deploy measurement tools for the global Internet infrastructure. Pictured here is a graph generated by CAIDA’s tool, Skitter, which is used to acquire and visualize global Internet connectivity information. Using these graphs, researchers can observe critical paths in the network infrastructure and identify regions of the Internet experiencing abnormal delays or hardware that is not performing to expectations.

CAIDA graph of Internet connectivity

Skitter data collection tool by Daniel McRobb (CAIDA)

Data analysis by Bradley Huffaker (CAIDA)

Graph layout code by Bill Cheswick (Lucent/Bell Laboratories) and Hal Burch (Carnegie Mellon University)

This work was sponsored in part by the NSF

NSF Grant ANI-9711092 and DARPA Cooperative Agreement N66001-98-2-8922

Ocean Exploration
Exploration continues to open new avenues of research. Oceanographers have recently discovered new organisms in environments previously thought incapable of supporting life. Creatures have been found in hydrothermal vents at the seafloor, one to two miles beneath the ocean surface in temperatures and chemistries that would be toxic to most known life forms. Through NSF-supported research, one of the organisms found in these vents, the Pompeii worm, has demonstrated that it can live in temperatures up to 81° C (that is, 178° F)!

The Ocean Drilling Program (ODP), funded by NSF and 20 international partners, promotes research efforts deep under the ocean floor. On one of the Program’s expeditions, scientists unexpectedly found evidence of life one-half mile into the Earth’s crust. A new microbiology laboratory is now established on the ODP drillship to isolate, identify, and study these unique microorganisms.

The very existence of these types of organisms is challenging the conventional definition of life. New research areas grown from the discoveries described above may assist in the discovery of new biomolecules with far-reaching applications, or they may help biologists unravel the mysteries of life on Earth.

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