BEACON: US$ 25 milhões para detectar a ação da seleção natural diante de nossos olhos

quarta-feira, fevereiro 24, 2010

Welcome to BEACON

The mission of the Bio/computational Evolution in Action CONsortium (BEACON) is to conduct research on fundamental evolutionary dynamics in both natural and artificial systems, educate a generation of multi-disciplinary scientists in these methods, and improve public understanding of evolution at all levels. The center will unite biologists who study natural evolutionary processes with computer scientists and engineers who are harnessing these processes to solve real-world problems. Developers of evolutionary algorithms have long borrowed high-level concepts from biology to improve problem-solving methods, but have not always captured the nuances of evolutionary theory. Likewise, studying the evolution of artificial systems can provide biologists with insight into the dynamics of the evolutionary process and the critical factors underlying emergent properties and behaviors. BEACON will promote the transfer of discoveries from biology into computer science and engineering design, while using novel computational methods and systems to address complex biological questions that are difficult or impossible to study with natural organisms.

As Dobzhansky famously noted, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." BEACON's vision focuses that light, revealing fundamental biological concepts and illuminating the path toward computational applications. The key insight underlying the Center is that transformative discoveries in both computing and biology are possible through studying evolution as it happens, in both natural and digital domains. The philosopher Dennett (2002) has pointed out the algorithmic nature of evolution as a process that will occur in any system with "replication, variation (mutation) and differential fitness (competition)". BEACON aims to understand evolution in this universal framework.

The rationale for BEACON as a center is that a long-term and large-scale infrastructure is needed to draw together the scientists who, through research in their own disciplines, hold the interlocking keys to solving complex and fundamental problems in domains as diverse as cyber-security, epidemiology, and environmental sustainability. The center will promote cross-disciplinary experience to both new and established researchers, and stimulate multidisciplinary investigations. Historically, biologists and evolutionary computation developers have had minimal interactions. New research in digital evolution can act as a conceptual glue to join these fields and make evolutionary concepts more accessible to the public.

BEACON has assembled a multi-disciplinary team at Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, North Carolina A&T State University, and the University of Idaho. BEACON members include experts in the core fields of computer science and evolutionary biology, and allied areas across the natural sciences, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, and education. The team has established a strong record of multi-disciplinary and cross-institutional research, effective educational programs, and human resource diversity.

Thrust Groups

To facilitate the exchange of ideas, BEACON has three research thrust groups, each addressing a broad theme that cuts across computational and biological thinking, but at different hierarchical levels. The Evolution of Genomes, Networks, and Evolvabilitygroup will focus on mechanisms of genetic change, organization, encoding of information, and developmental processes. TheEvolution of Behavior and Intelligence group will emphasize evolution of phenotypic traits of self-directed organisms including complex behaviors and early forms of intelligence. The Evolution of Communities and Collective Dynamics group will investigate evolution in large groups of organisms, focusing on issues related to the evolution of group structure and societal development, as well as emergent properties of ecological communities. To promote the two-way flow of discoveries and concepts, each thrust group will include team leaders and researchers from both biological and computational fields. In one direction, this flow will facilitate critical advances in evolutionary methods and algorithms. In the other direction, the speed, precision, and repeatability of computational evolution will enable biologists to test complex hypotheses that are experimentally impractical in natural systems. Thus, the twin goalsof BEACON are (1) to develop and apply evolutionary principles of adaptation and resiliency in computer science and engineering design, and (2) to use computational systems in tandem with biological experiments to test complex biological hypotheses. The initial research projects are highly multidisciplinary and multi-institutional. BEACON will actively promote technology transfer of its findings to industry: the Center's Industrial Affiliates will include several companies, large and small, with which Center researchers have established or emerging collaborations.

Education and human resource development

Education and human resource development activities of BEACON include faculty and postdoc mentoring, novel curricula both at graduate and undergraduate levels, training programs for high-school and middle-school teachers, and an array of outreach programs to engage K-12 students and the general public. For example, graduate students at all partners will become proficient in both computational sciences and evolutionary biology; each will start with a bridge course covering the fundamentals in the complementary discipline, followed by a project course engaging teams of students and faculty from both disciplines in a hands-on project with evolution in action. This training format, previously developed by the PI to train biologists and engineers for joint work in ecological modeling, was enormously successful. A typical example of BEACON outreach is a training program for high-school science instructors in applying novel software-based tools to teach basic evolutionary principles. The software will provide selfreplicating programs that evolve the capacity to solve problems and puzzles. Students can explore and test evolutionary concepts in a game-like environment, giving them hands-on experience with principles that otherwise seem abstract. Versions of this software will be made available in museums and on the web.


BEACON investigators are unusually diverse. Student diversity will be assured by building on the highly successful Sloan Graduate Program at MSU, which has recruited many African American and Hispanic graduate students from HBCUs, including North Carolina A&T. Partnership with NC A&T will provide their graduates opportunities at Center partners that offer Ph.D degrees not available at NC A&T. Undergraduate research assistants, especially from underrepresented minorities, will be recruited under MSU's Professorial Assistant Program and REU supplements. BEACON will also draw upon and contribute to NSF's National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, NESCent, an organization with a related, but distinct, mission. The educational and computational tools developed by BEACON will be shared with NESCent, and NESCent programs will be tapped for use in BEACON's graduate and teacher training.


BEACON is a consortium of universities led by Michigan State University with partner institutions of North Carolina A&T State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Washington.