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Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Theory and Mechanisms  (URoL:MTM) NSF Wide Programs

Name Email Phone Room
Catalina  Achim (703) 292-2048   
Soo-Siang  Lim (703) 292-7878   
Robert  Mayes (703) 292-7267   
Mamta  Rawat (703) 292-7265   
Karl  J. Rockne 703-292-5356   
Michael  E. Sieracki (703) 292-7585   
Sylvia  J. Spengler (703) 292-8930   


Solicitation  20-513

Important Information for Proposers

A revised version of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) (NSF 20-1), is effective for proposals submitted, or due, on or after June 1, 2020. Please be advised that, depending on the specified due date, the guidelines contained in NSF 20-1 may apply to proposals submitted in response to this funding opportunity.


In 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) unveiled a set of "Big Ideas," 10 bold, long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering (see The Big Ideas represent unique opportunities to position our Nation at the cutting edge of global science and engineering by bringing together diverse disciplinary perspectives to support convergence research. As such, when responding to this solicitation, even though proposals must be submitted to the Division of Emerging Frontiers in the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO/EF), once received, the proposals will be managed by a cross-disciplinary team of NSF Program Directors.

Understanding the Rules of Life (URoL): Predicting Phenotype is one of NSF’s 10 big ideas ( and is focused on predicting the set of observable characteristics (phenotypes) based on the genetic makeup of the individual and the nature of its environment. The Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Theory and Mechanisms (URoL:MTM) program is an integrative collaboration across Directorates and Offices within the National Science Foundation. The objective of URoL:MTM is to understand and establish the theory and mechanisms that govern the structure and function of microbiomes, a collection of microbes in a specific habitat/environment. This may include but is not limited to host-associated microbiomes, such as those with humans and other organisms, where i) the microbiome impacts host physiology, behavior, development, and fitness; ii) the host influences the metabolic activity, dynamics and evolution  of the microbiome, and iii) the environment (biological, chemical, physical, and social) influences and is influenced by both the host and the microbiome.  

Recent progress has transformed our ability to identify and catalogue the microbes present in a given environment and measure multiple aspects of biological, chemical, physical, and social environments that affect the interactions among the members of the microbiome, the host, and/or habitat. Much descriptive and correlative work has been performed on many microbiome systems, particularly those in the human, soil, aquatic, and built environments. This research has resulted in new hypotheses about the microbiome’s contributions to potential system function or dysfunction. The current challenge is to integrate the wide range of accumulated data and information and build on them to develop new causal/mechanistic models or theories of interactions and interdependencies across scales and systems. Elucidating these relationships informs our understanding of the Rules of Life – the theoretical constructs and models that explain and predict the characteristics of living systems, spanning from molecular and sub-cellular components, to cells, whole organisms, communities, and biomes.

The URoL:MTM program invites integrated, interdisciplinary proposals that develop theoretical predictive frameworks with well-designed experimental and/or computational approaches to generate and test hypotheses about the causal relationships within the microbiome, and among the microbiome, host, and environment. How these relationships affect robustness, resilience, and adaptability of individual organisms, populations, and communities are also of interest. Projects may apply existing ecological and evolutionary theory or develop new experimental, computational, or mathematical tools, models, and theory to: i) explain function and interactions in natural, experimental, and model microbiomes; ii) elucidate the molecular mechanisms that underlie communication between the host and the microbiome and among the members of the microbiome; and/or iii) comparatively analyze microbiomes to discover emergent properties that provide insight into the behavior of living systems. 

Successful projects will contribute to a portfolio of research that identifies general principles ("rules") that underlie a wide spectrum of biological phenomena across spatial, temporal (from sub-second to geologic), and/or complexity (molecular, cellular, organismal, population) scales. URoL:MTM projects must integrate perspectives and research approaches from more than one research discipline (e.g., biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geosciences, mathematics, physics, social and behavioral sciences). They must also incorporate best practices regarding protocol documentation, sample selection, data collection and analysis, model/algorithm development, as well as data sharing and accessibility. The interdisciplinary scope of URoL:MTM projects should provide unique training and outreach opportunities to train the next generation of scientists in a diversity of scientific approaches and to engage society more generally.  

URoL:MTM supports basic science research projects of different scales and scope. The URoL:MTM Program offers two submission tracks: Track 1 for projects with a total budget of up to $500,000 and an award duration of up to 3 years and Track 2 for projects with a total budget of up to $3,000,000 and award duration of up to 5 years.

What Has Been Funded (Recent Awards Made Through This Program, with Abstracts)

Map of Recent Awards Made Through This Program