The National Science Foundation (NSF) has released a new solicitation as part of the Understanding the Rules of Life (URoL) Big Idea, entitled Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Theory and Mechanisms (URoL:MTM).  In the this cross-directorate effort, NSF plans to invest between $12 million and $15 million to better understand the theoretical and mechanistic relationships within and among the microbiome, the host, and the environment.  In particular, the program is interested in the development of “novel experimental methods and theory, comparative approaches integrating knowledge from different scientific disciplines, predictive modeling, new mathematical, computational and data science approaches, and integrated multi-disciplinary education and outreach activities.”


Proposals must include both the use of the interdisciplinary activities that “integrate perspectives and approaches from more than one research discipline” and a plan to address “reproducibility and replicability of sample collection and preparation, experimental design, data analysis, model generation, and/or validation of computational methods.”  Proposals are strongly encouraged to “i) identify causal relationships within members of the microbiome, and among the microbiome, host (if any), and the environment; ii) investigate how these relationships affect the robustness and adaptability of organisms and communities; and iii) determine how these interactions affect the observable characteristics of the environment and vice versa.”  Additionally, proposals could respond to, but are not restricted to the following topics around the microbiome:


  • “The use of engineering, computational, statistical, biological, physical, and chemical approaches, including models and mechanistic studies to understand molecular communication within the microbiome, and between microorganisms and the host and/or environment;
  • New combinations of computational approaches, including life-, physical-, and social-science methods to understand scale-invariant principles as well as temporal and spatial variation in microbiome structure and function across different levels of analysis;
  • Leveraging computational approaches and different types of datasets from a wide range of organisms, from microbes to humans, in diverse physical and social environments to understand the evolution of microorganisms in microbiomes and the co-evolution of microorganisms, environment, and host;
  • The use of predictive ecological and evolutionary principles along with engineering, computational and statistical science to understand, predict, and engineer microbiome assembly;
  • The use of data science and control theory approaches to understand the existence of functional redundancy and the role it may play in microbiome diversity and resiliency to changing environmental conditions;
  • New computational, engineering, biological, physical-chemical and/or social networking approaches to understand and predict how a host’s genetic composition, physiology, and behavior influence the genetics, physiology, and behavior of the microbiome and vice versa;
  • Cross-disciplinary approaches to understand the relationship between the microbiome and brain function in humans and other species;
  • New models and cross-disciplinary approaches to understand, predict, and control how horizontal gene transfer affects the function and co-evolution of microbiome and host (and/or environment).”


Projects are also encouraged to leverage artificial intelligence approaches and integrate workforce development, undergraduate and graduate research experiences, as well as experiential learning opportunities for K-12 students.


Researchers should not submit proposals supported by the core programs of NSF’s Directorates or within the purview of the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, or the Department of Health and Human Services.  Although proposals must be submitted to the BIO Division of Emerging Frontiers, a cross-foundational team of program officers will oversee the program.  The solicitation limits individuals to serve as PI or Co-PI on only one proposal, although there is no limit on proposals per institution.


Due Date: Letters of intent, required for both tracks, are due by January 17, 2020.  Full proposals are due by March 2, 2020.


Eligibility: Eligible applicants under this opportunity include institutes of higher education, non-profits, and research labs.  There is no limit on the number of proposals per organization; however, individuals may only be designated as PI or Co-PI, on one proposal.


Total Funding and Award Size: NSF anticipates between $12 million and $15 million in available funding to support six to 12 new awards.  There are two submission tracks: Track 1 provides up to $500,000 over three years and Track 2 provides up to $3 million over five years.  NOTE: Track 2 proposals are required to submit management plans as a part of their supplementary documentation.


Sources and additional information: