Skip to main content
circle with wedges containing images of molecular functions

$20M NSF grant to support center to study how complex biological processes arise

25 April 2024
circle with wedges containing images of molecular functions
The U.S. National Science Foundation will support the establishment and operation of the National Synthesis Center for Emergence in the Molecular and Cellular Sciences at Penn State. Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation.

A $20 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) will support the establishment 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 glean new insights about how complex biological systems, such as cells, emerge from simpler molecules. Findings from the research could eventually inform the development of disease treatments and other applications such as minimizing the negative effects of aging.

The center will be based at Penn State’s University Park campus with cyber infrastructure provided by the University of Arizona’s CyVerse initiative, the world’s largest publicly funded open-source cyber infrastructure for life sciences. Involving more than 1,600 scientists from across the nation and the world, the center will feature 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 skilled in computational, data and life sciences.

NCEMS vision 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 focus initially on emergent properties at the mesoscale, the scale that spans 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 has how living organisms function well in a dynamic environment or suffer dysfunction and disease, are rooted in the mesoscale," said Ed O’Brien, NCEMS director and Penn State professor of chemistry. “We have a unique opportunity to harness big data and gain a more complete, detailed view of the mosaic of molecular and cellular processes by bringing together diverse datasets and multidisciplinary teams of scientists from across the world.”

O’Brien explained that prior to the advent of advanced computing capabilities, including most recently artificial intelligence, the study of emergent biological properties — new characteristics or behaviors that arise when simple parts come together to form a more complex whole — had been primarily through experimentation. Now, thanks to better computing power, scientific theorists and data scientists can integrate wide-spread, publicly available data to achieve deeper, predictive understanding of how complex biological systems arise and work.

"NCEMS will leverage ongoing research of the Penn State Center for Artificial Intelligence Foundations and Scientific Applications to accelerate discoveries 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 NCEMS will support 36 working groups across the country each consisting of six to 10 scientists in its first five years. The scientists, from diverse and complementary areas of expertise, will collaborate to help define research questions and goals for the center. Some possible areas of research focus are: how structural and metabolic networks emerge to give rise to cellular functions and life; how the aging of organisms emerges from chemical damage to biomolecules; and how homeostasis, the ability of cells to maintain a stable internal environment, becomes dysregulated by disease.

"The amount of publicly available data at the molecular and cellular scale is extensive, with each individual resource being valuable. Bringing those data together with the tools to synthesize them ― as this center is planned to do ― will create a whole greater than the parts and will drive advances in biology, biomedicine, renewable energy and more," Simon Malcomber, NSF deputy assistant director for biological sciences, said in a release. "This is the first time we will bring this approach to the molecular and cellular sciences and bring NSF's long history of support for Synthesis Centers to bear on the field."

O’Brien added that NCEMS will involve the wider community by carrying out team and open science and encouraging collaboration through cloud-based cyberinfrastructure, as well as providing training in the essential elements of data science, machine learning and statistics. The center will also offer nationwide opportunities to participate in research remotely, as well as build a cohort of underrepresented minority undergraduates involved in center research and support their professional development.

“As the Minority Serving Institution (MSI) liaison for NCEMS, I am excited to emphasize the crucial role of MSIs in our collaboration with Penn State and the NSF," said Justin Graham, assistant professor at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. "MSIs contribute vital perspectives, connecting with marginalized communities and fostering sustainable scientific partnerships. We aim to enrich this initiative with our diverse insights and expertise, ensuring NCEMS' success and showcasing the importance of inclusive collaboration in advancing research and benefiting society.”

Several internship positions 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 that 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 career,” 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 scientists and excited to be able to lead this effort here at Penn State.”

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

“Penn State is uniquely positioned to operate at this scale because we can leverage the considerable 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, senior vice president for research at Penn State, whose office will oversee NCEMS. “For NSF to select Penn State as the hub for this national center is a testament to our existing strengths in tackling the world’s most complex problems.”

Media Contacts
Edward O'Brien
Professor of Chemistry
Adrienne Berard
Public Relations Specialist