$20 million NSF grant to support a center studying how complex biological processes arise

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A $20 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) will support the creation and operation of the National Synthesis Center for Emergence in the Molecular and Cellular Sciences (NCEMS) at Penn State. The center will enable research that uses existing, publicly available data to gain new insights into how complex biological systems, such as cells, arise from simpler molecules. The study findings could ultimately contribute to the development of disease treatments and other applications, such as minimizing the negative effects of aging.

The center will be located on the Penn State University Park campus and will feature cyber infrastructure provided by the University of Arizona’s CyVerse initiative, the world’s largest publicly funded open-source cyber infrastructure for the life sciences. The center will have a strong outreach component, including multiple partnerships with minority-serving institutions, to offer workshops, training events and research-based learning opportunities to build a future workforce. in computational, data and life sciences.

The vision of NCEMS is to “understand how life emerges from the unexpected appearance of new biological system properties at different scales of composition, space, time, energy, information, and motion.” The center will initially focus on emerging properties at the mesoscale, the scale that extends from molecules – such as enzymes, DNA and proteins – to organelles, such as mitochondria. The goal is to understand how changes at the mesoscale influence higher subcellular and cellular outcomes, such as the traits that make individuals unique and distinguishable from one another.

“Many of the grand challenges in biology, such as how living organisms function well in dynamic environments or suffer dysfunction and disease, have their origins at the mesoscale,” said Ed O’Brien, NCEMS director and professor of chemistry at Penn State . have a unique opportunity to leverage big data and gain a more complete, detailed picture of the mosaic of molecular and cellular processes by bringing together diverse datasets and multidisciplinary teams of scientists from around the world.”

O’Brien explained that before the advent of advanced computing capabilities, including most recently artificial intelligence, the study of emergent biological properties – new characteristics or behaviors that emerge when simple parts come together to form a more complex whole – primarily through experiments had happened. . With better computing power, scientific theorists and data scientists can now integrate widespread, publicly available data to gain a deeper, predictive understanding of how complex biological systems arise and work.

“NCEMS will leverage the ongoing research of the Penn State Center for Artificial Intelligence Foundations and Scientific Applications to accelerate discovery through AI-powered, data-intensive, collaborative, transdisciplinary science,” said Vasant Honavar, Huck Chair in Biomedical Data Sciences and Artificial Intelligence at Penn State and associate director for artificial intelligence and strategic initiatives at NCEMS.

He explained that in the first five years, NCEMS will support 36 working groups across the country, each consisting of six to 10 scientists. The scientists, from diverse and complementary areas of expertise, will work together to help define the research questions and goals for the center. Some possible areas of research include: how structural and metabolic networks arise that give rise to cellular functions and life; how the aging of organisms results from chemical damage to biomolecules; and how homeostasis, the ability of cells to maintain a stable internal environment, is disrupted by disease.

“The amount of publicly available data at molecular and cellular scales is enormous, with each individual resource valuable. Bringing that data together with the tools to synthesize them – as this center plans to do – will create a whole greater than its parts and drive advances in biology, biomedicine, renewable energy and more” , Simon Malcomber, NSF deputy assistant director for biological sciences, said in a press release. “This is the first time we will apply this approach in the molecular and cellular sciences and apply NSF’s long history of support of synthesis centers to the field.”

O’Brien added that NCEMS will engage the broader community by conducting team and open science and encouraging collaboration through cloud-based cyber infrastructure, and by providing training in the essential elements of data science, machine learning and statistics. The center will also provide opportunities nationwide to engage in research remotely, and build a cohort of underrepresented minority students engaged in center research and supporting their professional development.

“As the Minority Serving Institution (MSI) liaison for NCEMS, I am pleased to highlight the critical role of MSIs in our partnership with Penn State and the NSF,” said Justin Graham, assistant professor at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. contributing vital perspectives, connecting with marginalized communities and promoting sustainable scientific partnerships. We want to enrich this initiative with our diverse insights and expertise, ensuring the success of NCEMS and demonstrating the importance of inclusive collaboration in advancing research and benefiting society.”

Several internships will be available to students from minority-serving institutions, including from NCEMS partners Claflin University, Alcorn State University and Fayetteville State. The center will manage a National Remote Research Experience to support research during the school year, which will be open to anyone across the country.

“NCEMS will serve as a national resource where people can build their skills and create knowledge no matter where they are in the country or in their academic careers,” said Camelia Kantor, NCEMS director of education, training and outreach and associate director of strategic initiatives. for Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “We are ushering in a new wave of interdisciplinary scholars and are pleased to lead this effort here at Penn State.”

NCEMS will also conduct educational outreach including workshops, training events and research-based learning opportunities to build a workforce skilled in computational and data sciences.

“Penn State is uniquely positioned to operate at this scale because we can leverage the significant resources and infrastructure we already have here in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, which catalyzes and facilitates interdisciplinary research in the life sciences , and the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences, whose core mission is to build capacity to solve problems of scientific importance through interdisciplinary, cyber-enabled research,” said Andrew Read, interim senior vice president for research at Penn State, whose office will oversee NCEMS. “That NSF has chosen Penn State as the hub for this national center is a testament to our existing strengths in tackling the world’s most complex problems.”