Why are These Science Funders Interested in Something That Happened Two Billion Years Ago?



Two funders that focus on basic science, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Simons Foundation, are set to delve into life's distant evolutionary past. In the process, they may also shed light on ecological, biological, and health issues that are increasingly pressing today.

Through a co-funded and co-managed project as part of the Moore Foundation’s Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative, the foundations are bringing together scientists from various disciplines to learn more about the evolution of life in oceans and other aquatic environments. These watery environments were incubators of pretty much all life on the planet, including us. And symbiosis was one of the important developments in biology that enabled more complex forms of life to arise.

Program directors at the two foundations want to support research on the origin of eukaryotic cells—organisms whose DNA is packaged in cell nuclei. People are eukaryotes, as are all plants and animals. Eukaryotes are distinct from prokaryotes, which have no nucleus or other membrane-bound internal structures, and whose DNA just floats around the cell. That category includes bacteria and single-celled critters called archaea.

If this is all starting to sound like a high school biology lesson, here's an interesting bit of evolutionary history: Back in the day, prokaryotes were the only organisms on the planet, until one day about 2 billion years ago, when a bacterium and an archaea got together, and through a type of symbiosis called endosymbiosis, formed eukaryotes. And while those of us long out of that high school science class may not exactly recall the word “eukaryote,” their evolution was one of the most prominent events in biology, enabling the development of all animals, plants and certain other organisms.

Why Now?

But why are two top foundations investing $140 million in this area now? The answer is that, for a few reasons, symbiosis is drawing increasing interest throughout biology and the broader scientific community. For example, you've likely read about the human microbiome, the menageries of microbes that (symbiotically) populate our gut and skin, and without which we humans couldn’t survive.  

The implications of the human microbiome are so crucial for so many areas of human physiology and health that they are drawing a great deal of attention and dollars from public and private funders. That means lots of minds will be focused on these topics in parallel, which funders hope will lead to a fertile period for the science.

“We spend time to identify areas where we can make a difference with our relatively modest funding,” Jon Kaye, program director in Moore's science program, told me. “Because there is so much interest in the human microbiome now, we can leverage the NIH funding in that area to zero in on these other areas of symbiosis.”

Another reason that the science is so timely has to do with the way scientific breakthroughs in one field enable new progress and tools in other areas. This is happening right now in biology, said Kaye, citing fields such as synthetic biology and genetics.

“We can use these new techniques in synthetic biology and genome sequencing as experimental models and start to understand the mechanisms of how symbiosis functions,” said Kaye.

Partnerships between funders don't always come naturally, but program leaders at Simons and Moore happen to have a close professional relationship and shared scientific interests.

“Often, organizations will do their own things, and have idiosyncratic approaches and interests, particularly if the founder is still at the helm,” said Kaye. "But there are times when the alignment of interests is quite clear, both in terms of the science we want to support and in terms of how we wanted to approach funding.”