The cutting EDGE of genomics

The Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools (EDGE) program seeks to deepen our understanding of the relationship between genomes and phenomes

Researcher Amy Hastings collects data on milkweed.
Researcher Amy Hastings collects data on milkweed. 2017 EDGE program / Credit: Anurag Agrawal, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

One of the greatest impediments to advancing humankind’s understanding of the relationship between genomes and phenomes, a grand challenge in biology that is relevant to Understanding the Rules of Life and is one of 10 Big Ideas for future NSF investment, has been the lack of functional genomic tools, approaches and associated infrastructure.

The National Science Foundation’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems has taken this challenge head on by awarding more than $13 million to 14 researchers to develop genomic tools that enable biologists to identify and study genetic mechanisms that determine an organism’s physical and functional characteristics.

“This program allows research communities to address a grand challenge in biology and is part of a bigger effort within our field to better predict how organismal traits arise from genetic variation in natural contexts,” said Ted Morgan, NSF EDGE program director. “Building this fundamental understanding of how genetic changes are connected with organismal traits has a range of significant societal benefits that include predicting organismal responses to changing environments, the development of more effective conservation efforts, new medical approaches and improved crop yields.”

The EDGE Program helps research communities overcome the impediments that restrict progress in the biology of organisms, including their structure, function and other traits. Specifically, EDGE supports the development and dissemination of new functional genomic tools, approaches and associated infrastructure to directly test gene function in organisms.

EDGE awards cover the study of a diverse range of organisms, from bacteria and fungi to plants and animals. Each new project will move the scientific community closer to being able to predict phenotype by developing enhanced genomic tools and infrastructure. This research will help to clarify the sets of rules that predict an organism’s observable characteristics or phenotypes, helping to address one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, “Understanding the Rules of Life.”

One of the most notable aspects of the EDGE Program is the diverse range of organisms explored throughout this research, such as:

  • Wild plants that could answer questions that lead to new, hardier crops.
  • Indianmeal moths, quick-reproducing moths that will open new avenues of research about physiology, immunology, reproduction, developmental genetics and evolution of insects.
  • Marine phytoplankton with companion viruses that together impact the carbon cycle and could illuminate what we know about the underlying genomics and phenomics of their symbiotic relationships.
  • Non-conventional yeasts that will provide insight into how they generally adapt to adverse environments.

This year’s awardees are:

Catalyzing regeneration research by developing functional tools for post-embryonic stages

Alexandra Bely, University of Maryland, College Park

Virus-inspired, lipid-mediated transfection and genetic manipulation of the marine coccolithophore, Emiliania huxleyi

Kay Bidle, Rutgers University – New Brunswick

Developing functional genomics tools for emerging extremophyte models

Maheshi Dassanayake, Louisiana State University

Functional genotype-phenotype mapping in the Mexican Blind Cavefish, Astyanax mexicanus

Erik Duboue, Florida Atlantic University

Development of foundational multiplex genome engineering tools for non-conventional yeast

Farren Isaacs, Yale University

Developing transformation capacity for Anthoceros agrestis to facilitate gene function studies in hornworts

Fay-Wei Li, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research

Development of a molecular toolkit for integrative organismal research in the microcrustacean

Michael Lynch, Arizona State University

Precise genome editing in a lepidopteran insect tailored for stable transformation

Arnaud Martin, George Washington University

Enabling cell-specific functional genomics in a colonial animal

Christine Schnitzler, University of Florida

Improving and streamlining systems for functional studies of non-model plants

Douglas Soltis, University of Florida

Development transgenic and lineage tracing tools in planarians

Bo Wang, Stanford University

Tools to advance functional genomic studies in sea urchins

Gary Wessel, Brown University

Genetics tools to study giant viruses

Steven Wilhelm, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Genetic transformation of broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) and narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolate)

Cankui Zhang, Purdue University