UW News

September 10, 2015

UW scientists will continue studies of evolution ‘in real time’ with five-year grant renewal

UW News

Faculty members from several departments at the University of Washington will share $2.25 million in research funds from the National Science Foundation to study and apply the principles of evolution “in real time.” Their studies are a part of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. Founded in 2010, this NSF science and technology center is a partnership among five universities to better understand evolutionary processes and apply concepts such as adaptation and selection to new and innovative settings in science and technology.

“BEACON was founded on the premise that the study of evolutionary processes not only enriches our understanding of the natural world, but also has applications in other fields, such as computer science and engineering,” said UW biology professor Ben Kerr, who manages the BEACON project for the university. “We want to understand evolution in biological systems better, but we also want to use evolution to improve computer software, to solve engineering problems and other projects of practical value.”

The BEACON center was founded in 2010, and the UW received $2.5 million in funding for the first five years. This year’s renewal — $22.5 million split among the five universities — will support the center for a final five years. The majority will go to Michigan State University, where BEACON is headquartered. The other partner institutions — the University of Idaho, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the University of Texas at Austin — will receive amounts comparable to the UW.

BEACON was founded in part to pursue interdisciplinary and innovative approaches to evolutionary studies. Participating faculty receive funds to begin new types of projects that fall under BEACON’s overall mission.

“These are often seed grants to professors — starter funds for getting new projects and collaborations off the ground,” said Kerr.

The UW researchers involved in BEACON projects include faculty from traditional fields such as biology to unexpected ones such as electrical engineering. The experiments they have pursued include new approaches to biofuel production, flower pollination by insects, chemical communication among bacteria and the evolution of multicellular organisms. At other institutions, BEACON projects include robotics, evolution of computer programs, algorithms for facial recognition software and cancer detection, the origin of new species and computational techniques to understand the genetics of complex diseases.

BEACON researchers also benefit from annual meetings at Michigan State University to share research updates and hold courses and tutorial sessions on new techniques and experimental approaches. Kerr and several UW colleagues attended this year’s meeting in August shortly before the NSF announced that the center would receive five more years of funding.

“We’re thrilled that this has happened,” said Kerr. “We’ve another five years, so let’s see what more we can do in that time.”

UW faculty and staff also use BEACON funds for public outreach and education. Using BEACON seed funds in conjunction with a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kerr and biology department lecturer Scott Freeman are developing a laboratory module for introductory biology courses where students can design their own evolution experiments with bacteria, such as seeing how quickly the microbes evolve resistance to antibiotics. BEACON funds have also been used to develop new courses at the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories in the San Juan Islands and hold outreach events at the Seattle Aquarium, the Pacific Science Center, Seattle Town Hall and local schools.

In addition to Kerr, UW faculty in BEACON leadership roles include biology professor Billie Swalla, who is BEACON education coordinator for the UW, and affiliate professor of biology Wenying Shou at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who coordinates efforts to enhance participant diversity with the center.


For more information, contact Kerr at 206-221-3996 or kerrb@uw.edu.