MSU gets $22.5M to continue evolution research

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — For some, evolution conjures up the origins of life. But at Michigan State University, researchers are studying modern evolution in humans, nature and computers through a prism unlike anywhere else in the nation.

That’s why the National Science Foundation has awarded Michigan State University $22.5 million to study these evolutionary processes at the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

The center brings biologists, computer scientists, and engineers together to study evolution in real time and apply knowledge to solve real-world problems.

The areas of study are wide, ranging from the evolution of disease to understanding and reducing the evolution of antibiotic resistance. Researchers are even studying the evolution of “digital organisms” in computer environments.

Ultimately, researchers are working to answer some very big questions.

“We apply evolution in action to research health issues, engineering problems, evolving computer programs,” said Erik Goodman, director of the BEACON center. “By studying those processes, we can learn things that can cast light on things in the real world.”

A National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center that is headquartered at Michigan State, the BEACON center is made up of 600 people from senior professors to undergraduates doing summer research, Goodman said.

At any time, about 100 projects are underway in pure and applied research, along with education and outreach. Partners include North Carolina A&T State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington.

The National Science Foundation gave MSU its first five-year grant of $25 million in 2010. Earlier this month, officials renewed the grant for another five years.

“The first time it sounded like a very innovative approach to combine computer science, engineering and biology to answer difficult questions in all of those fields using tools from all of those fields,” said George Gilchrist, program officer in the division of environmental biology at the National Science Foundation. “The renewal is because they have made such fantastic progress and have really changed the landscape in evolutionary computation and evolutionary biology.”