Ten new awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) totaling $14 million will enable biologists to develop enhanced genomic tools that can reveal new insights into why organisms are structured the way they are and function the way they do.
Genomic tools allow researchers to understand more about the genetic makeup, or genomes, of organisms. They also have the potential to show how gene function affects organisms' phenotypes — the physical and functional characteristics that result from an organism's genes interacting with its environment.
The cost of genomic tests has fallen in recent years, speeding the pace of discovery and allowing researchers to better measure gene expression. But researchers still often lack the tools needed to test their hypotheses about the functional relationships between genes and phenotype.
The Enabling Discovery through GEnomic Tools (EDGE) program, administered by NSF's Biological Sciences Directorate, funds projects that work to develop new genomic tools and provide the research community with information about how to use them.
"EDGE awards can bridge significant gaps in genomic research capabilities," said James Olds, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences. "Every breakthrough made by one of these projects has the potential to lead to many more discoveries, as they will provide valuable new tools for entire fields of science."
EDGE-funded projects move the scientific community closer to being able to predict phenotype by developing enhanced genomic tools and infrastructure.
"If you can more easily and reliably determine cause-and-effect relationships between gene expression and an organism's physical characteristics or functions, you've opened important new doors for research," said EDGE Program Director William E. Zamer. "Understanding the relationships between genome and phenome is crucial for accelerating scientific advances about the structure and function of organisms."
Each of the awards focuses on enabling tests of gene function in one or more organisms with unique features, including species of fish, insects and amphibians. The species' uniqueness makes them well-suited to address fundamental biological questions.
One project, for example, focuses on a cyanobacterium scientists believe is likely responsible for 10 percent of the ocean's photosynthesis. Genomic tools to study the cyanobacterium could help advance research into the biochemistry of oceans, ocean modeling and ecology.
Developing better means to study the relationship between genes and phenotypes is a grand challenge in biology, and part of a broad quest within the field to better predict phenotype. The ability to foresee the characteristics of organisms would open opportunities for societal benefits ranging from new disease treatments and drug therapies to better crop yields. NSF identified this area of research as "Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype" in its 10 Big Ideas for future investment.
The new 10 EDGE-funded projects, principal investigators and sponsor institutions are:
- Expanding the toolkit for functional genetics in threespine stickleback to place genomics into its natural context, Daniel Bolnick, University of Texas at Austin.
- Development of genetic tools for the dominant phototroph in the sea, Sallie Chisholm, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Enabling genotype-phenotype studies in weakly electric fish, Jason Gallant, Michigan State University.
- Rapid and efficient gene editing of amphibians through nuclear transfer from engineered cell lines, Gary Gorbsky, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
- Development of genetic and genomic resources for milkweed, Asclepias syriaca and Asclepias curassavica, Georg Jander, Boyce Thompson Institute.
- Developing gene manipulation tools and resources for a vocal learning species, Claudio Mello, Oregon Health and Science University.
- Nanoscale probes and infrastructure for real-time and single-cell genomics across metazoa, Leonid Moroz, University of Florida.
- Accelerating arthropod genetic manipulation through ReMOT Control, Jason Rasgon, Pennsylvania State University.
- Functional-genomics tools for Cnidarian-dinoflagellate symbiosis, Virginia Weis, Oregon State University.
- Generating transgenic Cuscuta as a tool for studying plant interactions, James Westwood, Virginia Tech.