Thinking Big: Research team awarded NSF grant to discover “Rules of Life” through the study of coral reef ecosystems


The US National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded ~$3 million to a collaborative group of researchers for Thinking Big. NSF is investing in Big Ideas to serve the Nation’s future: One of these 10 Big Ideas asks how the interaction between organisms and their environments leads to specific traits and adaptations, and if these can be predicted from molecular modifications in the genome known as epigenetic modifications. Living organisms may acclimate to environmental changes through epigenetic modifications to chromatin (DNA and associated proteins), which alter the way genetic instructions are interpreted, without changing the DNA code itself. While these modifications to organism function are extremely dynamic and reversible, some of them may be consolidated in the germ line and inherited by their offspring, potentially producing multiple, heritable outcomes from a single genome. This dynamic capacity can have consequences at the ecological and evolutionary levels, making it essential to understand these links, or “Rules of Life”.

A team of researchers from the University of Rhode Island (URI), University of Washington (UW), Florida International University (FIU), the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), and Shedd Aquarium have been funded through NSF’s Understanding the Rules of Life (URoL): Epigenetics program to focus on how the environment influences cellular energetic and epigenetic state using symbiotic, metabolically complex reef building corals as a model system. The goal of this work is to better understand how changes in nutrition and energy through the symbiosis influence epigenetic modifications in corals, and what this may mean for coral ecology and evolution.

NSF Award