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

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

“There are some desert plants and micro-animals, like tardigrades, which can lose up to 90 percent of their water and resume normal biological function within hours of being rehydrated. We want to know how they do it,” said Carnegie’s Sue Rhee, who was just awarded a $12.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a cross-disciplinary institute that will investigate this question.

Understanding the molecular, cellular, and physiological mechanisms by which they accomplish this incredible hardiness could inform strategies for surviving climate change with minimal impact to the food supply and help identify conditions that could support life on other planets.

Called the Water and Life Interface Institute, or WALII (pronounced as wally), this new Carnegie-led initiative involving scientists from nine institutions will examine the interface of water and life among plants, animals, and fungi across four key areas:

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

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

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

“WALII will prioritize inclusion of individuals from a diversity of backgrounds, which will bring an array of perspectives to the table and enhance our ability to undertake creative problem solving and tackle big questions from novel angles,” Rhee said.

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