LIFE: Leveraging Innovations From Evolution


The rich diversity of life and its evolutionary adaptations means we have a treasure-trove of bio-solutions resulting from millions of years of organisms confronting and solving environmental challenges. Convergent evolution, the repeated evolution of similar traits often in response to similar environments, provides unparalleled opportunities to explore the origins, mechanisms, and macroevolution of adaptive traits. Studying these innovations from a hierarchical perspective at multiple biological (e.g., organismal, organ, cellular, subcellular, molecular) and phylogenetic levels will enable a more detailed and robust understanding of the various evolutionary pathways that have converged on similar solutions despite unique evolutionary contexts and constraints.

NSF is partnering with KnowInnovation to host two LIFE Scoping Sessions (one in-person and one virtual) that will bring together diverse scientists to think on specific research challenges and opportunities, including technological and educational training needs, that leverage convergent evolution to investigate the evolution of innovation and adaptive traits.

Why? 3.5 billion years of life’s evolutionary innovations and solutions to changing environments, and the mechanisms underlying those innovations, provide innumerable and replicable natural experiments. It’s time to come together to leverage life’s innovations to better understand the history and future of life, and to inform technological developments to support a sustainable global bioeconomy.

The Challenge

Evolution has provided answers and new innovations to countless challenges, including:

  • How to grow in dry, hot environments
  • How to survive below-freezing temperatures for several months of the year
  • How to survive and flourish in environments toxic to most organisms
  • How to “see” in the dark
  • How to withstand attacks from pathogens and insects

Many answers have evolved numerous times, but via unique pathways depending on the evolutionary context and potential. Importantly, complex adaptive traits are not controlled by a simple genetic architecture but rather functionally integrate many genes and their products. The study of innovation and function in model organisms continues to provide many important advances in both the life sciences and biotechnology, particularly in elucidating the detailed molecular underpinnings and pathways of novel complex traits (e.g., defense mechanisms). To enhance these advances and speed discoveries, a multi-level systems approach should now be sought. In particular, using a comparative phylogenetic approach to the study of innovation at multiple biological levels (i.e., organismal, organ, cellular, subcellular, molecular) is critical because it is only through the study of convergent evolution that we can leverage natural replicated experiments in biological innovation.

The challenge, then, is to combine the expertise of diverse scientists and bioengineers who often work in isolated domains. Systematists and integrative organismal biologists are needed because of their deep knowledge of natural history, evolution, and comparative approaches. Biochemists and molecular biologists are needed because of their technological expertise and insight on mechanisms and constraints underlying traits in model organisms. Computational, mathematical, and physical scientists are needed to bring theoretical perspectives and quantitative rigor.

About the Event

We will be hosting an informational, virtual Town Hall in May, 2023, followed by two Scoping Sessions. Participants will be able to choose between an in-person Scoping Session held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in August, 2023, or a fully virtual Scoping Session. Each will have 60 selected participants. These events are being facilitated by KnowInnovation, a company that specializes in working with scientists to accelerate innovation and achieve actionable outcomes. Each event will be highly interactive, discussion- and solution-based. During a Scoping Session, KI facilitators orchestrate many fast-paced interactions that result from a broad exploration of the topic area. Scoping Sessions result in actionable outcomes and recommendations to the NSF for both near- and long-term research priorities.

Specific goals of the LIFE Scoping Sessions:

  • Engage the life sciences and adjacent communities to focus on research challenges and opportunities pertaining to evolutionary innovations within a convergent evolution framework to better understand generalizable as well as unique solutions to life’s common problems.
  • Articulate needs, strategies, and recommendations to enable transdisciplinary research into life’s evolutionary innovations and solutions to changing environments. This includes research, infrastructure, and educational priorities.
  • Jumpstart ideas, build new networks and teams, and outline the most exciting areas of research that would leverage natural systems and convergently evolved innovations to help us more efficiently and effectively engineer new and sustainable technologies that power our economy.

Who Should Apply

If you are eager to engage with diverse researchers to spark creative paths forward to advance our understanding of LIFE, join us! We encourage researchers with interest and expertise in a variety of fields, including but not limited to the following:

Systematics, Evolutionary Biology, Developmental Biology, Biomechanics, Physiology, Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Cellular Biology, Genetics, Genomics, Chemistry, Computational Biology, Biological Informatics, Mathematical Modeling, Biogeography, Ecology, Synthetic Biology, Cyberinfrastructure, Biophysics and Engineering.

The target audience includes researchers at a diversity of career stages (postdocs, early-career to established investigators), from diverse disciplines and study systems, geographic regions, institution types, gender, race and ethnicity, etc.

We are also seeking insight and novel approaches to training, education, and pedagogy so that the STEM workforce is enriched with more people who can bridge the academic cultural divide that too often separates molecular biology/biochemistry from the -ologies.

How to Apply

Space is limited so be sure to apply early! Attendance for the entirety of the workshop is expected to ensure a productive, results driven event. Participants will work to establish priority question(s) and research proposal concepts in this hands-on workshop.

Application Deadline

June 12, 2023 by End of Day

Complete Application >>

Event Outcomes

You will be actively involved in articulating the needs, strategies, and recommendations that will enable the National Science Foundation to prioritize next steps in enabling research at this exciting nexus.

You will establish new informal collaborations to ideate on research projects.

You will identify tools, technology, and training needs essential to accomplish advancements.

More Information

A Town Hall will be held during the open application window to help answer any questions. Following the application deadline, the NSF will evaluate applications to choose a diverse group of participants for each of the two Scoping Sessions - one in-person, and one virtual. Invitations will follow, with detailed information on travel (if in-person session), agenda, etc.

Virtual Town Hall

May 15, 2023
1:00 pm - 2:30 pm ET

In-Person Scoping Session Details

Indianapolis, Indiana
August 14,15,16, 2023

Virtual Scoping Session Details

September 11, 13, 15, 2023
10:00 am - 4:00 pm ET each day

Synthesis Session Details

September 25, 2023
10:00 am - 4:00 pm ET

What happens after the Scoping Sessions? The organizers will synthesize all the input, which will include white-papers and short presentations. The National Science Foundation will use this information to inform federal investments in the short- and long-term.