Understanding the Rules of Life

The mission of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) is to enable discoveries for understanding life. Our theoretical understanding of life is based on first principles; for example, that life comes in dynamic packages, such as cells and organisms, and that these packages reproduce with variable heredity, expanding in population size until constrained. Among life’s first principles—the constraints, drivers, and feedbacks of evolution—there must be discoverable sets of rules that, once identified, would contribute to new or refined conceptual understandings of life, new approaches to studying life, and new, fundamentally different questions about life and its origins. There have already been advances in our understanding of some rules, such as our knowledge of how protein dynamics contribute to their function and of developmental signaling, but many rule sets remain to be discovered. And such discoveries will be the engine for innovation in other disciplines that make use of biology. Understanding the rules of life is the business of biology in the 21st century.