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MSU awarded $25M grant to establish new science center

February 17, 2010

A $25 million cutting-edge science and technology center is coming to MSU, university officials announced Wednesday.

MSU beat hundreds of universities across the U.S. for the funding from the National Science Foundation, or NSF. The grant will create the Bio/computational Evolution in Action Consortium, or BEACON.

NSF will begin funding BEACON on June 1.

BEACON will allow researchers to study the relationship between evolution in digital as well as biological realms. Researchers at the center will be able to study evolutionary principles through the use of computer programs that compete with one another for resources to be able to multiply.

Researchers said they will be able to look for comparisons between evolution in the computer programs and in organisms such as bacteria.

MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said the grant is the result of years of hard work and collaboration between university researchers.

“This was a very difficult competition,” Simon said. “When you’re in a very competitive space, you’re never quite sure of your chances, and we’re just absolutely delighted that this work has been recognized.”

The $25 million will stretch across five years, with a renewal ability for an additional five years, said Richard Lenski, a co-principal investigator.

MSU will lead research at BEACON among four partner universities — North Carolina A&T State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington.

MSU was one of five institutions across the U.S. to receive an award under NSF’s Science and Technology Centers program.

An NSF spokesperson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Erik Goodman, BEACON’s principal investigator, said funding under the NSF program is highly sought after.

“It’s the most prestigious program at NSF,” Goodman said. “It only comes along about every five years. Everybody wants one of these centers.”

The possibility of making BEACON a reality at MSU arose several years ago, Lenski said. He said NSF put out a call for preproposals for funding under the program.

“We began to collaborate … about possible unifications of ideas in computer science and engineering and ideas in biology, and what a fruitful opportunity for the future that collaboration would represent,” Lenski said.

Goodman said the university invested money in making space for BEACON months before the announcement.

“The university said ‘We are going to go ahead and make this space available. If you fund BEACON, we’ll be able to start,’” Goodman said. “It shows that the university is willing to invest in this, and is confident that we’re going to make progress in this area regardless.”

BEACON will be located in the space formerly occupied by the Biomedical and Physical Sciences Branch Library. That space is being renovated to make room for BEACON and the Institute for Cyber-enabled Research, or iCER.

The renovations are expected to be completed by May 15, Goodman said.

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