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NSF invests in new approaches to drive the future of biotechnology

Nanostructures on an emerald-patched cattleheart butterfly wing

Projects will utilize machine learning to further our understanding of foundational biology essentia

September 26, 2022

The U.S. National Science Foundation announced seven new awards, totaling more than $10 million, through the Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology (MFB) program, supporting collaborative research that uses machine learning methods to advance fundamental research in biomolecular systems with the potential to spur new biotechnologies. These new awards build upon four made as part of the program in 2021, bringing the total NSF investment to more than $15 million. 

Machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence that allows a system to learn from experience, has driven recent innovations in many areas and holds the potential to tremendously accelerate scientific progress and transform the nature of research in the physical and life sciences. In recent years, machine learning was used to predict the structure of a protein based on its sequence, furthering our ability to characterize, understand, and harness the power of a critical building block of life. The new awards will seek to create similar breakthroughs in areas including protein design, RNA based regulation, and Protein-DNA Assemblies, paving the way for advances in biotechnology, medicine, and industry that are critical to the Nation’s long-term economic and national security.  

NSF’s MFB Program aligns with critical agency goals to provide the Nation with the capacity to approach more complex questions than ever before," said NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Sean L. Jones.NSF’s investment will bring foundational advances in biotechnology that will impact health care, manufacturing, sustainability and more.” 

The application of machine learning technologies to biomolecular questions is the most recent focus area of NSF’s multi-year effort to support fundamentally new approaches in molecular sciences and drive new directions in biotechnology. The focus area in 2021 was novel chemical biology tools to drive innovations in biotechnology.  

“By bringing together teams that can cross these new computing and analytic methods with expertise from chemical and biological sciences, the research has the potential to yield findings that can transform our country,” said Margaret Martonosi, assistant director for the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering . 

“Biology and the millions of ways life has adapted and evolved hold extraordinary promise to address critical issues from the need for sustainable sources of energy to the call for new and more efficient medicines and vaccines,” said NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Joanne Tornow. "By supporting the use of advancements in other fields of science and engineering to answer long-standing questions in biology, the MFB program is bringing us closer to delivering on that promise.” 

The fiscal year 2022 awards made by the MFB program, and the lead institutions are: 

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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