NSF

NEW COLLABORATION BETWEEN NSF MCB AND GERMAN RESERCH FOUNDATION

The NSF Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) has announced a new opportunity for investigators to obtain support for international collaboration, specifically between the U.S. and German research communities. The Dear Colleague Letter, released under an MOU with the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and  titled “NSF-DFG Lead Agency Opportunity in Molecular and Cellular Biology” (NSF 22-015), invites U.S. and German collaborators to submit joint proposals in the areas covered by NSF/MCB and DFG’s review board 201 “Basic Research in Biology and Medicine.”

The proposals should focus on basic research at a molecular, subcellular, or cellular level, including theoretical approaches. Please note the following exclusions:

  • Proposals encompassing tissues, organs or whole animals will not be considered.
  • Research in the areas of plant sciences, microbiology, immunology, and neurosciences is also excluded.

Proposals must provide a clear rationale for the need for US-German collaboration, including the unique expertise and synergy that the collaborating researchers will bring to the project.

Please note that proposals can be submitted from January 3rd, 2022 on a continuous basis. Please note that there is no deadline for submission to either agency.

For full details on submission guidelines, program priorities, and contact information, see DCL NSF 22-015.

Designer Cells Welcomes Proposals for the Second Year

In 2020, NSF’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences together with the Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transports Systems (CBET) in the Directorate for Engineering (ENG) and the Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES) in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) launched a new solicitation, Designing Synthetic Cells Beyond the Bounds of Evolution (Designer Cells) NSF 21-531.  With this solicitation, NSF hoped to continue to support advances in building synthetic cells and leverage the success of programs like Understanding the Rules of Life: Building a Synthetic Cell. Projects submitted to the Designer Cells solicitation used synthetic biology to address at least one of the following research areas:

  1. identifying the minimal requirements for the processes of life;
  2. addressing fundamental questions in the evolution of life or to explore biological diversity beyond that which currently exists in nature;
  3. leveraging synthetic systems for innovative biotechnology applications. 

The program is now accepting proposals for its second cohort. The due date for proposals for the second year is February 1, 2022.

In its first cohort, the program made 12 awards.  These first awards explored a number of exciting themes including building synthetic organelles, exploring non-natural or synthetic approaches to information storage and decoding, and creating cells with new tunable properties.  One exciting thematic area represented in a number of 2021 Designer Cells awards was synthetic modifications that change information storage and decoding in cells.  A full list of the awards made in the first year of Designer Cells can be found here.  

In this second year of the solicitation, Program Director Anthony Garza says that he “hopes to see proposals that continue to push to boundaries of what cells can do, either by adding in new functionality, or minimizing cell components, but still getting functional synthetic cells.” Program Director Steve Peretti said he “would like to see the community exploit synthetic cell technology in new application areas.” 

Opportunities to Learn More

Garza and Peretti are holding a Virtual Office Hour on Designer Cells and other new opportunities on November 17, 2021 at 2 PM EST.  You can register here

Q&A Session for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology (PRFB) Program Announced

The NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology (PRFB) program will be hosting a question and answer session 2 weeks prior to the PRFB Deadline. The Q&A session will be Nov. 16th, from 3-4 pm Eastern Time.  The PRFB deadline is December 6th, 2021.

Please register in advance for the webinar below, and share this invitation with anyone you think may be interested:

https://nsf.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_Ogehn040SjGXPePi3GjeSg

NSF-Simons Collaboration on a National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology (NITMB)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently released a new solicitation (NSF 21-607) to support a national institute to enable innovative research at the intersection of mathematical and biological sciences. The goal of the institute will be to facilitate new developments of biology-inspired mathematical theories, methodologies, and innovative modeling approaches to advance the understanding of challenging biological problems. The institute should promote interdisciplinary research, education, and workforce training.

The preliminary proposal is due on December 1, 2021. The full proposal is due on July 18, 2022.

The institute will serve as a national resource that aims to advance research in the mathematical and biological sciences through programs supporting discovery and knowledge dissemination in mathematical biology and enhancing connections to related fields.

The institute should primarily focus on advances in theory and mathematics that are motivated by and applicable to the analysis of complex biological systems. Other expectations include:

  • Conduct interdisciplinary education and training through research involvement of doctoral degree recipients and graduate students from across this multi-disciplinary spectrum
  • Conduct convening activities, including short-term and/or long-term visitor programs, workshops, and/or outreach activities.
  • Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility are expected to be core values of the institute and should be reflected in its research, education, outreach programs, and its leadership

The institute will be co-sponsored at an anticipated level of $50,000,000 for five years by the National Science Foundation Directorates for Mathematical and Physical Sciences and for Biological Sciences, together with the Simons Foundation Division of Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

Information on Proposal Format:
Proposals must be written with a five-year plan for research, training, outreach, and other Broader Impact activities. The plan and budget must reflect a ramp-up of the institute’s activities during Years 1 and 2, with a full complement of activities implemented no later than the beginning of Year 3.

For more information:
View the full solicitation (NSF 21-607) here.

Upcoming NSF Merit Review Survey

Have you submitted or reviewed an NSF proposal? We want to hear from you

This week, recent NSF applicants and reviewers will be emailed a survey link to provide feedback on their experience with the merit review process. Eligible individuals will be those who have submitted and/or reviewed proposals between October 1, 2018 and September 30, 2020. Results from this survey will help NSF understand critical elements of the merit review process, including perceptions of fairness, quality, satisfaction, and burden for individual directorates and NSF as a whole. In the past, survey findings led to improvements, such as revisions to reviewer training to enhance the quality of reviews used to make funding decisions.   

If you have submitted or reviewed a proposal within the past two years, check your inbox on October 19 for your personal link to the survey. Your feedback is a crucial to the ongoing improvement of the merit review process. If you do not see the email in your inbox, check you spam folder. Please reach out to MeritReviewSurvey@nsf.gov with questions.

This survey is sponsored by the Office of Integrative Activities, and survey invitations will come from Insight Policy Research, an independent contractor conducting the survey.  PI and reviewer participation is voluntary and confidential. This survey should take no more than 20 minutes. 

 Thank you in advance for helping us continually improve the NSF merit review process.

Welcome to FY22 – Recap of MCB funding opportunities and priorities

Greetings from all of us in Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the National Science Foundation! 
The new federal fiscal year FY 2022 is underway and we are looking forward to all the exciting science you will propose and accomplish in the coming year.

Stay Informed on News and Updates by Following the MCB Blog
Watch this space, where we will announce funding opportunities and tell you about virtual and in-person venues to talk with MCB program officers. The blog is also where we share information about the MCB portfolio and announce new funding opportunities. Look here, too, if you are interested in rotating or permanent employment opportunities in MCB. 

Keep up to Date on Upcoming and Past Virtual Office Hours
We use the linked Virtual Office Hours site to share an archive of advice from program directors to applicants. The recorded sessions and files walk through a variety of topics from how to prepare a budget, tips for developing broader impacts activities, and how to submit a proposal to suggestions for writing effective, constructive reviews.

Check out a Quick recap of MCB Highlights to Kick Off the New Funding Year

Engage with MCB Virtually
For the time being, MCB will continue to have virtual review panels and program directors will visit scientific meetings virtually, too. If your conference, department, or institution would like a virtual visit, don’t hesitate to contact a program director to see what can be arranged. All of us at MCB look forward to serving you in the year ahead.

BIO-wide Virtual Office Hour on changes in the new NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures guide

Join the Directorate for Biological Sciences for a BIO-wide Virtual Office Hour at 3:00 PM Eastern Time on October 26, 2021 on the changes in the new NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG, 22-1), which  became effective on October 4, 2021.

Representatives from NSF’s Policy Office will present on the changes and be available for questions. 

Register in advance for this webinar:
https://nsf.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_udIs4ENmQxetfQUu4LSpeQ

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

As a reminder, the PAPPG is comprised of documents relating to the Foundation’s proposal and award process for the assistance programs of NSF. The PAPPG, in conjunction with the applicable standard award conditions incorporated by reference in the award, serve as the Foundation’s implementation of 2 CFR §200, Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards.

The new PAPPG (22-1) can be found at https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/policydocs/pappg22_1/nsf22_1.pdf and a list of changes begins on page 2 of the PDF.

SHARING MCB SCIENCE: REGULATING NITROGENASE FORMATION IN CYANOBACTERIA

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Cyanobacteria are blue-green colored microbes with a simple cellular structure (like bacteria) and the ability to convert sunlight into chemical energy through photosynthesis (like plants). They also perform nitrogen fixation, a process by which nitrogen is extracted from the air and converted into ammonia, using an enzyme (a specialized protein) called nitrogenase. Since ammonia is a potent plant fertilizer, cyanobacteria can live symbiotically with plants in a variety of soil, water, and marsh habitats – enabling some farmers to use cyanobacteria in place of traditional fertilizers to improve the yields of rice and other staple food crops. Because of its function in nitrogen fixation, research on nitrogenase has the ability to create a firm foundation for future advances in agriculture and food security in support of the NSF’s mission to “…advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare…”

Associate Dean Dr. Teresa Thiel and her lab in the Department of Biology at the University of Missouri – St. Louis study a type of cyanobacteria called Anabaena variabilis. Uniquely, this cyanobacterium has three different nitrogenase enzymes, each capable of performing nitrogen fixation in different environmental conditions. The Thiel team previously studied each of the three nitrogenases and characterized a group of fifteen genes (called the nif1 gene cluster) whose expression through transcription (DNA to RNA) and translation (RNA to protein) is necessary to make the primary nitrogenase in Anabaena variabilis. They also identified potential sites of regulation; cells often regulate discrete steps in the protein production process as a way to conserve cellular resources by limiting the amount of protein produced when it is not needed. For years, scientists knew the important role nitrogenase played in nitrogen fixation, but had yet to uncover how cyanobacterial regulation of production of this important enzyme.

In a recent publication, Dr. Thiel and her team describe their research on one regulatory site called an RNA stem-loop. The investigators predicted this secondary structure would occur before an important gene in the nif1 cluster (called nifH1). The nifH1 gene encodes a protein largely responsible for nitrogenase enzyme assembly and function. Using a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to mutate the RNA stem-loop, they studied how changes in the stem-loop altered nifH1 transcript stability and processing. The Thiel team found that mutations impacting the structure or sequence of the RNA stem-loop also severely inhibited the levels of nifH1 transcript, and most importantly, limited cyanobacteria’s ability to perform nitrogen fixation.

These findings have potential for modulating the efficiency of nitrogen fixation in cyanobacteria, leading to more fertilizer production, and a potential source of renewable energy by harnessing the hydrogen created during nitrogen fixation. This work also may impact an exciting area of bioengineering research. As described in a MCB awarded US and UK research BBSRC-collaboration Ideas Lab proposal, bioengineers are attempting to create a “nitroplast” cellular structure, patterned after the nitrogenase in cyanobacteria, to allow plants to make their own fertilizer.

When asked about the broader impacts of her research, Dr. Thiel responded:

The engagement of scientists with the larger scientific and non-scientific community is critical to promoting a public understanding of science and in attracting students to careers in science. To do so, the broader impacts of my research include integrating research within graduate, undergraduate, and high school education. Students from Jennings Senior High School, a predominantly African-American high school located in North St. Louis County, have participated in 6 weeks of summer research as part of the Jennings at UMSL Program, which is designed to help students succeed in college. Additionally, a student from the UMSL SUCCEED program, which supports vocational experiences for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities works as a laboratory aide in my lab. Furthermore, I participate in educational outreach activities in the St. Louis community, working with local high school teachers to incorporate hands-on microbiology activities in their classrooms.

This work is partially funded by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Award #MCB-1052241.

MCB WELCOMES DR. CASONYA JOHNSON, PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR THE GENETIC MECHANISMS CLUSTER

Casonya Johnsonbiology

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Georgia State University. I teach courses in genetics to students at all levels and conduct research with my students to investigate the underlying mechanisms by which transcriptional regulators direct post-embryonic development—in other words, we want to understand how the molecules that regulate the process of making RNA from DNA affect the development of an organism after the embryo stage.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I was attracted by the opportunity to be at the forefront of cutting edge research, to expand my own knowledge of my research field, and to understand how funding trends are directed.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

My first impression was that the impact of NSF (on science as a whole) extends far beyond the individual research laboratory. I have only been here a month, but my impression stands.

What are the personal goals you most want to accomplish while at NSF?

I want to learn as much as I can, about everything I can; to find ways to broaden my research focus; to find ways to communicate to the research community the ways in which NSF supports research; and to find ways to better engage the general public so that everyone can understand the need for and benefits of basic scientific research.

What has surprised you most about working at NSF?

I think I am most surprised about how much support – from IT to administrative to security – is offered here. That type of support is sometimes missing in academia, so I am used to spending time trying to figure things out for myself, when here all I need to do is ask for help.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

The learning curve is very steep. The biggest challenge is fighting the feeling that I’m not moving fast enough to get things done. The other challenge is making sure that my students and my personal research do not suffer while I am here.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

Do it! Your colleagues at NSF will help you succeed and at a minimum, you will leave with a much better understanding of how NSF works.

When your friends/colleagues find out that you work at NSF, what do they say or ask?

All have responded “What an amazing opportunity!” Then, they ask if I like it and who is taking care of my lab.

SHARING MCB SCIENCE: DISCOVERY OF A NON-BASE FLIPPING MECHANISM IN DNA REPAIR

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Eichman Lab members involved in the study (from left to right): Dr. Elwood Mullins, Dr. Brandt Eichman, Rongxin Shi, and Dr. Zachary Parsons. Photo Credit: Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt

The DNA of humans, like that of all other organisms, can be damaged, acquiring what are referred to as “lesions.” A common form of DNA damage is DNA alkylation, where a small group of carbons and hydrogens (alkyl group) are chemically bound to the base of DNA nucleotides (the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that make up DNA). When a DNA base is alkylated, the normal function of the cell’s DNA is disrupted and the genetic information being stored is mutated, which has the potential to develop into some types of cancer and threaten the survival of the organism.

To protect the organism from the effects of DNA lesions, cells have processes to repair DNA. One such process is called base excision repair, which was one subject of last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As shown in the figure below, base excision repair begins with DNA glycosylase (ie. a protein with enzymatic function that initiates a process), which is able to bind to double-stranded DNA and look for DNA lesions using a base-flipping mechanism. In base-flipping, a DNA nucleotide that is suspected of containing an alkyl group is flipped away from its base pair partner and into the active site of the DNA glycosylase. If the DNA glycosylase sees a lesion, it severs the chemical bond that links the DNA base to the DNA backbone and initiates subsequent repair steps, ultimately restoring the DNA to an undamaged state.

Until recently, it was thought that all DNA glycosylases used base-flipping to repair damaged DNA. A paradigm shift occurred in the DNA repair field when a non-base-flipping DNA glycosylase enzyme, called AlkD, was discovered by Professor Dr. Brandt Eichman in the Department of Biological Sciences and Center for Structural Biology at Vanderbilt University and his research group, in collaboration with Professor Dr. Sheila David and her research group at University of California Davis and Professor Dr. Yasuhiro Igarashi at the Toyama Prefectural University in Japan. Repair that does not involve base-flipping has also been shown by the Eichman team to uniquely allow the repair of bulky DNA lesions.

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Space-filling models (left) and illustrations (right) showing base-flipping excision repair (top) and non-base-flipping excision repair (bottom). Top: A damaged DNA base (blue) from a double stranded DNA helix (orange and yellow) is inserted, or “flipped,” into the active site of the DNA glycosylase enzyme (white or grey). Bottom: A bulky chemical group (purple) attached to a DNA base (blue) results in a lesion within a double stranded DNA helix (orange and yellow) that is repaired without base-flipping by a DNA glycosylase enzyme (AlkD) (white or grey).

As described in a recent publication in Nature, the Eichman research team used a technique called X-ray crystallography to capture a series of time-lapsed 3D renderings of AlkD as it repaired a lesion. The Eichman team’s conclusion that AlkD removes DNA damage using a non-base-flipping mechanism was supported by their crystallographic analysis which showed the AlkD enzyme mainly contacted the DNA backbone, not the DNA lesion. Thus, non-base-flipping broadens the spectrum of DNA damage that DNA glycosylases are known to repair. Also, the 3D structure of AlkD is common to proteins that do not have enzymatic functions, which makes it difficult for researchers to identify non-base-flipping DNA glycosylases just based on their structure. Therefore, there is a strong possibility there are other DNA repair proteins that scientists have yet to identify.

When asked about the broader impacts of his research, Dr. Eichman responded: “This research program has involved trainees from all levels—undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral—several of whom have continued on in a number of scientific careers, including medical school, science policy, and industry. Most importantly, it has enabled us to expose undergraduates to cutting edge structural biology and to the practical aspects of X-ray crystallography, both in the classroom and in the lab.”

This work is funded jointly by the Genetic Mechanisms program in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) and the Chemistry of Life Processes Program in the Division of Chemistry in the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Award #MCB-1122098 and Award #MCB-1517695.