Statement from the Acting Assistant Director for Biological Sciences on proposal submission limits

In August, the BIO directorate released new solicitations to its proposal submission process to eliminate deadlines and limit the number of proposals that could be submitted to a given division annually by a PI or co-PI. As BIO was receiving far more worthy proposals than it has money to support, this submission cap was established with a view to ensuring that BIO’s merit review process would not be overwhelmed with the move to no deadlines.

In the ensuing three months, the community expressed serious concern that this new policy would hinder collaboration as well as limit funding prospects for new investigators. BIO places a high value on collaboration and on fostering careers of new investigators; thus, we held internal discussions to consider ways to address these concerns. In addition, relatively few proposals have been submitted to BIO since the release of the solicitations.

Having listened to community concern and tracked the current low rate of submission, and following extensive internal consultation, BIO is lifting all PI or co-PI restrictions on proposal submission for FY 2019, effective immediately.

BIO recognizes that it is important to track the effects of the no-deadline policy on proposal submission patterns, to ensure that a high-quality review process is sustained. Therefore, we are seeking approval from the Biological Sciences Advisory Committee to establish a subcommittee to assist in developing the evidence base for any future policy changes that may be needed.

Solicitations for proposals will be amended and released over the next few weeks to reflect these changes.

Special BIO Advisory Committee Meeting to be held 11/16

A recent update from the BIO OAD Blog: “The BIO advisory committee will hold a special meeting on Friday, November 16th from 2:30-4:30 PM to discuss immediately establishing a subcommittee to consider different options for addressing community concerns with the BIO proposal submission limits.

This meeting will be held via teleconference among the Advisory Committee members. Public visitors will be able to attend the meeting in person at NSF headquarters; please contact Alexis Patullo at apatullo@nsf.gov to request a visitor badge.

For more information on this meeting, please visit the NSF BIO Advisory Committee page.”

MCB Program Director Devaki Bhaya Named Fellow of California Academy of Sciences

Devaki is smiling into the camera and holding up a framed certificate from the California Academy of Sciences

MCB warmly congratulates Dr. Devaki Bhaya, Program Director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster, for being recently named a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. The honor was extended to a total of 14 researchers this year for their significant contributions to science or science education and communication. Fellows are nominated by their peers and selected by the Academy’s board as individuals whose research aligns with the Academy’s mission to “explore, explain, and sustain life”.

Dr. Bhaya is a research staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, CA, and holds a courtesy appointment as a Professor of Biology at Stanford University, Stanford, CA. Dr. Bhaya says, “I am thrilled to be elected a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, an organization that couples a remarkable natural history museum with a lively research institute.  My innumerable visits to the California Academy with friends, students, and family, have always been memorable and now I hope to participate more actively.”

Dr. Bhaya was selected for the Academy in part due to her work using molecular tools to understand how photosynthetic bacteria interact with their environment. More about the Academy and its newest group of Fellows is available via their website; more information about Dr. Bhaya and her research can be found on her lab web page.

 

AccelNet Letters of Intent due Dec. 21!

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Image credit: Pasko Maksim/Shutterstock.com

Letters of intent for NSF 19-501, Accelerating Research through International Network-to-Network Collaborations (AccelNet), are due December 21.

AccelNet is a new solicitation that invites proposals creating international networks-of-networks in research areas aligned with either one of NSF’s Big Ideas or a community-identified scientific challenge with international dimensions. The networks-of-networks is intended to develop strategic links between U.S. research networks and complementary networks abroad. These networks could help address scientific challenges through the broader research and educational resources made available through international collaboration.

The program seeks to foster high-impact science and engineering by providing opportunities to create new collaborations and new combinations of resources and ideas among linked global networks. The goals of the AccelNet program are to:

  • accelerate the process of scientific discovery; and
  • prepare the next generation of U.S. researchers for multiteam international collaborations.

Letters of Intent are due December 21, 2018. For more information, read the solicitation.

Supplemental Funding Opportunity: INTERN

Attention, Principle Investigators and graduate students! DCL 18-102 provides up to $55,000 per student in funding for up to six months to allow recipients to participate in research-based internships in STEM or STEM education research fields in non-academic settings.* The goal is to enable students to gain knowledge, skills, and experiences that prepare them for entry into non-academic careers. This opportunity is open to PIs who are supporting graduate students through any active NSF award. To be eligible, a graduate student must have completed at least one academic year in their graduate (master's or doctoral) program and be making satisfactory progress towards degree completion. For a description of the activities supported, visit the announcement page, then contact your program officer to discuss your proposal. *Principle investigators who currently hold an active award from MCB may also apply directly to MCB with a supplemental funding request.

Attention, Principal Investigators and graduate students! DCL 18-102 provides up to $55,000 per student in funding for up to six months to allow recipients to participate in research-based internships in STEM or STEM education research fields in non-academic settings.* The goal is to enable students to gain knowledge, skills, and experiences that prepare them for entry into non-academic careers.

This opportunity is open to PIs who are supporting graduate students through any active NSF award. To be eligible, a graduate student must have completed at least one academic year in their graduate (master’s or doctoral) program and be making satisfactory progress towards degree completion.

For a description of the activities supported, visit the announcement page, then contact your program officer to discuss your proposal.

*Principal investigators who currently hold an active award from MCB may also apply directly to MCB with a supplemental funding request.

Congratulations to the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Congratulations to MCB funded-researcher Dr. Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Noble Prize in chemistry. Dr. Arnold is honored for her role in developing the field of directed evolution. As a researcher at California Institute of Technology, Dr. Arnold based her work on the principles of evolution to improve enzyme function; she used error prone polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to introduce random mutations in a gene of interest, introduced those genes into an E. coli library, allowed the mutants to compete, and selected for mutants that improved function. Enzymes optimized through this process can improve results anywhere enzymes are used such as: medicine, biotechnology, biofuels, research, industrial production, and home cleaning and processing applications.

“Dr. Arnold transformed the field of protein engineering and did so at a time when there were very few women in the field.  She combatted gender bias in academia by excelling and demonstrating to those of us who followed her that it was possible,” observed Theresa Good, Deputy Division Director of MCB. Dr. Arnold’s award brings the total number of female awardees in chemistry to five of 180 recipients, representing 2.8 percent of awards in chemistry; the percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded to women is slightly less than six percent.

This year’s award is shared with Dr. George P. Smith, University of Missouri, and Dr. Gregory Winter, Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, for their work on phage display. Click on the link to read the Statement on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by NSF Director Dr. Frances Córdova.

New Funding Opportunities: Rules of Life Solicitations

a picture of a hand dripping drops of water onto a small plant with dramatic sunlight in the backgroundThe National Science Foundation recently announced two new solicitations: Understanding the Rules of Life: Epigenetics (NSF 18-600), and Understanding the Rules of Life: Building a Synthetic Cell (NSF 18-599). These NSF-wide opportunities are part of Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype, one of NSF’s 10  “Big Ideas” for future investment.

 

A headline banner reading "Understanding the rules of life: epigenetics" underneath of which is a cartoon of a short strand of DNA wrapped around three histones like three beads on a single string

Understanding the Rules of Life: Epigenetics (NSF 18-600) invites proposals which investigate heritable biological or chemical mechanisms that produce a phenotypic effect without alteration of the DNA sequence.  Projects must integrate education perspectives and research approaches from more than one research discipline (e.g., biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, mathematics, physics, social and behavioral sciences).

Full proposals are due February 1, 2019 and can be submitted in one of two submission tracks:

(1) award duration of up to 3 years and a total budget of $500,000 or

(2) award duration of up to 5 years and a total budget of $3,000,000.

The specifics of the program priorities and areas of emphasis, as well as additional limitations and guidelines, can be found in the full solicitation.

 

A title banner reading "understanding the rules of life: building a synthetic cell" over an image of a plant root tip with each cell glowing green due to GFP attached to the cell wall

Understanding the Rules of life: Building a Synthetic Cell: An Ideas Lab Activity (NSF 18-599) invites researchers to apply to participate in an inter-disciplinary Ideas Lab focused on facilitating innovative research projects for designing, fabricating, and validating synthetic cells that express specified phenotypes. Up to $10,000,000 of funding is available for successful project proposals resulting from the Ideas Lab.

Building a synthetic cell is a grand challenge at the interface between biological, mathematical, computer and physical sciences and engineering.  Meeting this challenge requires simultaneous careful exploration of the social and ethical dimensions of such research as well as educating today’s students to engage in the activities and technologies required to develop and use synthetic cells.

To apply to this program, researchers should:

  • submit preliminary proposals due December 28, 2018,
  • participate, if selected, in the Ideas Lab workshop to be held February 25 – March 1, 2019, and
  • if invited to do so, submit, as part of a team, a full proposal due May 13, 2019.

Full details regarding the specifics of the research ideas, proposal limitations, and the application process can be found in the full solicitation.

A Letter From The Acting Assistant Director

Acting Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences, Dr. Joanne Tornow, recently published a letter clarifying some frequently asked questions about MCB’s new no-deadline solicitation. For full details about our solicitation see the recent blog post, the BIO Core Program solicitation FAQ, the full solicitation NSF 18-585, or contact your program director.

what’s your big idea?

What is it?   The NSF 2026 Idea Machine competition is an unprecedented opportunity to promote a new area of research that is important and exciting but not currently addressed by NSF. Ideas submitted will help set the stage for breakthrough research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and STEM education through the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026 and beyond.

How do I enter?   Submit your entry at the NSF 2026 Idea Machine website by October 26th, 2018.

Who’s eligible–and not eligible–to submit ideas?   All contestants must be either U.S. citizens, or permanent residents or legally reside in the U.S., and be over 14 years old on September 1, 2018. More details are available on the Eligibility & Rules page.

 

Sharing MCB Science – Unraveling the relationship between DNA winding and chromatin topology

A 3D model of DNA wrapped around nucleosomes

A model of circular nucleosome array

Cells tackle the complex task of packaging all their DNA into a tiny nucleus by spooling it around nucleosomes, sets of 8 specialized proteins called histones. Historically there has been variation in estimates in the number of times that DNA winds around each nucleosome. This number is known from x-ray crystallography to be about 1.7 superhelical turns; however, previous examination of circular nucleosome arrays indicated to researchers that the number of turns is closer to one. The Grigoryev lab at Pennsylvania State University has proposed an explanation.

Through a more direct approach using a combination of electrophoresis and electron microscopy, Dr. Grigoryev and his lab, in collaboration with Dr. Zhurkin lab at NIH, discovered that the number of turns and the space between nucleosomes is actually quite variable within the same segment of DNA. Furthermore, the distance between nucleosomes seems to influence the number of turns DNA makes per each nucleosome. They also noted that this variability of chromosome spacing could be a mechanism which chromatin domains use to control DNA packing. The findings were published in Science Advances.
DNA packs tightly to fit into the cell nucleus, but how dense it is and how the density is distributed across the genome also influences higher level organization such as chromatin shape and even chromosome shape and structure. Shape and structure, in turn, influence how DNA interacts with the environment around it. For example, the density of DNA-packing influences whether regulatory proteins can properly interact with a gene and therefore whether the gene is expressed. Understanding the mechanisms behind how these changes are managed can provide a better look into how DNA functions, which can expand our ability to understand and manipulate genetic processes.

This work was funded by the Genetic Mechanisms cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, award #1516999.