Home Biological science New NSF-funded institute will probe biology in the absence of water

New NSF-funded institute will probe biology in the absence of water


Tidestromia oblongifolia in winter, Death Valley National Park, CA, USA, Photo by Seung Yon (Sue) Rhee, Copyright 2018, Creative Commons CC BY 4.0

Carnegie Science

Water is inextricably linked to our understanding of life – it makes up most of our planet’s surface and organisms in the tree of life depend on it to function. Yet the ability to survive extremely dry conditions for long periods of time is crucial to the life cycles of many species, including plants, which can reproduce from desiccated pollen grains and grow from desiccated seeds.

“There are desert plants and micro-animals, such as tardigrades, that can lose up to 90% of their water and resume their normal biological function within hours of being rehydrated. We want to know how they do it,” said Sue Rhee of Carnegie, who just received a $12.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create an interdisciplinary institute that will study this question.

Understanding the molecular, cellular, and physiological mechanisms by which they accomplish this incredible resistance could inform strategies for surviving climate change with minimal impact on food supplies and help identify conditions that might support life on other planets.
Called the Water and Life Interface Institute, or WALII (pronounced wally), this new Carnegie-led initiative involving scientists from nine institutions will examine the water-life interface between plants, animals and fungi in four areas keys:

  • The evolutionary history of the ability to survive sustained periods of low water;
  • The genetic and physical factors that determine an organism’s ability to survive in extremely dry conditions;
  • How different organisms react to the presence of water during the rehydration process;
  • And the link between protein structure and desiccation tolerance.

Institute scientists will come from a wide range of fields, including molecular biophysics, computer science, genomics, and cell and evolutionary biology, as well as plant biologists with expertise in seed physiology. Senior scientists, early career researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students will form the team with the goal of producing a new generation of scientific leadership.

In addition to Carnegie, scientists from California State University Channel Islands, University of California Merced, USDA Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, University of Wisconsin-Madison , Michigan State University, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Wyoming, and Baylor College of Medicine have already committed to join the institute.

“WALII will prioritize the inclusion of individuals from diverse backgrounds, which will bring a range of perspectives to the table and enhance our ability to undertake creative problem-solving and approach big questions from new angles,” Rhee said.

The initiative will also spearhead outreach and education activities to raise awareness about drought, degraded water quality and climate change. Carnegie and his colleagues at the University of Wyoming have already completed a pilot program teaching San Francisco-area children about tardigrades, which are among the hardiest animals in the world.