A “BEACON” for Real-Time Evolution Research

Wednesday, February 24 2010

Written by Ken Kingery

MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho’s excellence in real-time evolution has been nationally recognized by its inclusion in a $25 million grant bringing together scientists across the
country to research topics ranging from antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the efficiency of automobiles.

The University of Idaho will join four other universities in the creation of BEACON, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. Though BEACON’s physical headquarters are in East Lansing, Michigan, its creation supports projects at each member university and promotes collaborations between them.

BEACON is short for the “Bio/computational Evolution in Action CONsortium,” and is one of five highly coveted and difficult to obtain research centers awarded by the NSF.

“This award recognizes the great work the University of Idaho has done in the past and the work we will continue to pursue,” said James Foster, professor of bioinformatics and computational biology, and Idaho’s point person on the project. “Faculty and students on campus have been doing exactly this sort of interdisciplinary work for years, primarily in the initiative for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary STudies (IBEST). Idaho was a natural choice as a member of this collaboration.”

IBEST is a signature research area at the University of Idaho that directs BEACON participation and is a collection of faculty and students with diverse specialties who work together to answer health questions too complicated for any single expert. The group includes faculty members from the College of Science, College of Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Many people think of evolution as a process that takes millions of years or the theory that humans and apes share a common ancestor. What many don’t realize is that evolution is happening on a much shorter time scale all around us every single day.

Bacteria evolve resistance to medicines. Our bodies develop defenses against viruses, which in turn mutate to bypass the immune system. Chipmunks divided by a river become different species. These are just a few of the projects already in progress at the University of Idaho, each of which will be supported by the new center, said Foster.

“The University of Idaho is committed to the pursuit of far-reaching, interdisciplinary research projects that have a global impact such as BEACON,” said Jack McIver, vice president of research and economic development. “Not only will the University of Idaho’s inclusion in this project advance the outstanding work already being done by our faculty and students, it will help give future science and industry leaders the confidence to invest in our research abilities.”

The funding also will help improve and maintain the advanced equipment that allows this research to be done on campus. In the past year, real-time evolution research has been boosted by investments into a Bioinformatics Core computer cluster equivalent to more than 800 standard desktop computers and a DNA-sequencing machine known as a pyrosequencer capable of decoding more than one million sequences of DNA in a single run.

Aside from these vital pieces of equipment and the expertise in bioevolutionary studies, the University of Idaho also has an abundance of expertise in the marriage of biology and computers. Several faculty members develop computational algorithms and virtual models of evolution that are vital to the understanding and prediction of the physical process. Thanks to the new funding, they will be able to refine these models with real-life evolutionary data.
Finally, the center will support K-12 educational programs and community outreach efforts including collaboration with the Palouse Science Center.

“The University of Idaho is one of the best places in the country to study evolutionary biology and develop evolutionary algorithms,” said Foster. “This honor recognizes the success IBEST has already had and will extend each of its ongoing projects.”

BEACON will be led by Michigan State University, a close evolutionary biology research partner with the University of Idaho for the past two decades. Also included in the BEACON center are North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington.

For more information, visit the NSF’s official announcement at http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=116378&org=NSF&from=news.
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. The university is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.