Synonyms of assignment

  • as in lesson
  • as in appointment
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Thesaurus Definition of assignment

Synonyms & Similar Words

  • responsibility
  • undertaking
  • requirement
  • designation
  • appointment
  • authorization
  • installment
  • installation
  • destination
  • emplacement
  • investiture
  • singling (out)

Antonyms & Near Antonyms

  • dethronement

Synonym Chooser

How does the noun assignment contrast with its synonyms?

Some common synonyms of assignment are chore , duty , job , stint , and task . While all these words mean "a piece of work to be done," assignment implies a definite limited task assigned by one in authority.

When is it sensible to use chore instead of assignment ?

While the synonyms chore and assignment are close in meaning, chore implies a minor routine activity necessary for maintaining a household or farm.

When is duty a more appropriate choice than assignment ?

Although the words duty and assignment have much in common, duty implies an obligation to perform or responsibility for performance.

When might job be a better fit than assignment ?

The synonyms job and assignment are sometimes interchangeable, but job applies to a piece of work voluntarily performed; it may sometimes suggest difficulty or importance.

When could stint be used to replace assignment ?

In some situations, the words stint and assignment are roughly equivalent. However, stint implies a carefully allotted or measured quantity of assigned work or service.

When can task be used instead of assignment ?

The meanings of task and assignment largely overlap; however, task implies work imposed by a person in authority or an employer or by circumstance.

Thesaurus Entries Near assignment

assignments

Cite this Entry

“Assignment.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/assignment. Accessed 13 Mar. 2024.

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Definition of 'assignment'

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assignment in American English

Assignment in british english, examples of 'assignment' in a sentence assignment, related word partners assignment, trends of assignment.

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something assigned, as a particular task or duty: She completed the assignment and went on to other jobs.

a position of responsibility, post of duty, or the like, to which one is appointed: He left for his assignment in the Middle East.

an act of assigning; appointment.

the transference of a right, interest, or title, or the instrument of transfer.

a transference of property to assignees for the benefit of creditors.

Origin of assignment

Synonym study for assignment, other words for assignment, other words from assignment.

  • mis·as·sign·ment, noun
  • non·as·sign·ment, noun
  • re·as·sign·ment, noun

Words that may be confused with assignment

  • assignment , assignation

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2024

How to use assignment in a sentence

He traveled to China, India, Russia, and Africa for fashion-related assignments.

Among his previous assignments were stints in war zones like Afghanistan and the Congo.

He also had a reputation for not sticking to the brief of his assignments.

His writing assignments were filled with “a disturbing level” of mayhem, war, and death.

The first faux-Fleming assignments went to writers such as Kingsley Amis (writing as “Robert Markham”) and John Gardner.

Toward the end of the campaign his assignments increased until all his time was taken.

Assignments came to be made of one acre to a family, near the palisaded hamlet for convenience and better security.

For a short time he had no assignments that taxed his abilities in either direction.

If you make as good time as you have made on some other assignments, you can get back here before 10:30.

Not a lot of business-reporting assignments involved spending time with half-naked, sun-baked dudes in remote southern junkyards.

British Dictionary definitions for assignment

/ ( əˈsaɪnmənt ) /

something that has been assigned, such as a mission or task

a position or post to which a person is assigned

the act of assigning or state of being assigned

the transfer to another of a right, interest, or title to property, esp personal property : assignment of a lease

the document effecting such a transfer

the right, interest, or property transferred

law (formerly) the transfer, esp by an insolvent debtor, of property in trust for the benefit of his creditors

logic a function that associates specific values with each variable in a formal expression

Australian history a system (1789–1841) whereby a convict could become the unpaid servant of a freeman

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Understanding Assignments

What this handout is about.

The first step in any successful college writing venture is reading the assignment. While this sounds like a simple task, it can be a tough one. This handout will help you unravel your assignment and begin to craft an effective response. Much of the following advice will involve translating typical assignment terms and practices into meaningful clues to the type of writing your instructor expects. See our short video for more tips.

Basic beginnings

Regardless of the assignment, department, or instructor, adopting these two habits will serve you well :

  • Read the assignment carefully as soon as you receive it. Do not put this task off—reading the assignment at the beginning will save you time, stress, and problems later. An assignment can look pretty straightforward at first, particularly if the instructor has provided lots of information. That does not mean it will not take time and effort to complete; you may even have to learn a new skill to complete the assignment.
  • Ask the instructor about anything you do not understand. Do not hesitate to approach your instructor. Instructors would prefer to set you straight before you hand the paper in. That’s also when you will find their feedback most useful.

Assignment formats

Many assignments follow a basic format. Assignments often begin with an overview of the topic, include a central verb or verbs that describe the task, and offer some additional suggestions, questions, or prompts to get you started.

An Overview of Some Kind

The instructor might set the stage with some general discussion of the subject of the assignment, introduce the topic, or remind you of something pertinent that you have discussed in class. For example:

“Throughout history, gerbils have played a key role in politics,” or “In the last few weeks of class, we have focused on the evening wear of the housefly …”

The Task of the Assignment

Pay attention; this part tells you what to do when you write the paper. Look for the key verb or verbs in the sentence. Words like analyze, summarize, or compare direct you to think about your topic in a certain way. Also pay attention to words such as how, what, when, where, and why; these words guide your attention toward specific information. (See the section in this handout titled “Key Terms” for more information.)

“Analyze the effect that gerbils had on the Russian Revolution”, or “Suggest an interpretation of housefly undergarments that differs from Darwin’s.”

Additional Material to Think about

Here you will find some questions to use as springboards as you begin to think about the topic. Instructors usually include these questions as suggestions rather than requirements. Do not feel compelled to answer every question unless the instructor asks you to do so. Pay attention to the order of the questions. Sometimes they suggest the thinking process your instructor imagines you will need to follow to begin thinking about the topic.

“You may wish to consider the differing views held by Communist gerbils vs. Monarchist gerbils, or Can there be such a thing as ‘the housefly garment industry’ or is it just a home-based craft?”

These are the instructor’s comments about writing expectations:

“Be concise”, “Write effectively”, or “Argue furiously.”

Technical Details

These instructions usually indicate format rules or guidelines.

“Your paper must be typed in Palatino font on gray paper and must not exceed 600 pages. It is due on the anniversary of Mao Tse-tung’s death.”

The assignment’s parts may not appear in exactly this order, and each part may be very long or really short. Nonetheless, being aware of this standard pattern can help you understand what your instructor wants you to do.

Interpreting the assignment

Ask yourself a few basic questions as you read and jot down the answers on the assignment sheet:

Why did your instructor ask you to do this particular task?

Who is your audience.

  • What kind of evidence do you need to support your ideas?

What kind of writing style is acceptable?

  • What are the absolute rules of the paper?

Try to look at the question from the point of view of the instructor. Recognize that your instructor has a reason for giving you this assignment and for giving it to you at a particular point in the semester. In every assignment, the instructor has a challenge for you. This challenge could be anything from demonstrating an ability to think clearly to demonstrating an ability to use the library. See the assignment not as a vague suggestion of what to do but as an opportunity to show that you can handle the course material as directed. Paper assignments give you more than a topic to discuss—they ask you to do something with the topic. Keep reminding yourself of that. Be careful to avoid the other extreme as well: do not read more into the assignment than what is there.

Of course, your instructor has given you an assignment so that he or she will be able to assess your understanding of the course material and give you an appropriate grade. But there is more to it than that. Your instructor has tried to design a learning experience of some kind. Your instructor wants you to think about something in a particular way for a particular reason. If you read the course description at the beginning of your syllabus, review the assigned readings, and consider the assignment itself, you may begin to see the plan, purpose, or approach to the subject matter that your instructor has created for you. If you still aren’t sure of the assignment’s goals, try asking the instructor. For help with this, see our handout on getting feedback .

Given your instructor’s efforts, it helps to answer the question: What is my purpose in completing this assignment? Is it to gather research from a variety of outside sources and present a coherent picture? Is it to take material I have been learning in class and apply it to a new situation? Is it to prove a point one way or another? Key words from the assignment can help you figure this out. Look for key terms in the form of active verbs that tell you what to do.

Key Terms: Finding Those Active Verbs

Here are some common key words and definitions to help you think about assignment terms:

Information words Ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why.

  • define —give the subject’s meaning (according to someone or something). Sometimes you have to give more than one view on the subject’s meaning
  • describe —provide details about the subject by answering question words (such as who, what, when, where, how, and why); you might also give details related to the five senses (what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell)
  • explain —give reasons why or examples of how something happened
  • illustrate —give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject
  • summarize —briefly list the important ideas you learned about the subject
  • trace —outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form
  • research —gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you have found

Relation words Ask you to demonstrate how things are connected.

  • compare —show how two or more things are similar (and, sometimes, different)
  • contrast —show how two or more things are dissimilar
  • apply—use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation
  • cause —show how one event or series of events made something else happen
  • relate —show or describe the connections between things

Interpretation words Ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Do not see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation.

  • assess —summarize your opinion of the subject and measure it against something
  • prove, justify —give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth
  • evaluate, respond —state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons
  • support —give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe)
  • synthesize —put two or more things together that have not been put together in class or in your readings before; do not just summarize one and then the other and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together that runs all the way through the paper
  • analyze —determine how individual parts create or relate to the whole, figure out how something works, what it might mean, or why it is important
  • argue —take a side and defend it with evidence against the other side

More Clues to Your Purpose As you read the assignment, think about what the teacher does in class:

  • What kinds of textbooks or coursepack did your instructor choose for the course—ones that provide background information, explain theories or perspectives, or argue a point of view?
  • In lecture, does your instructor ask your opinion, try to prove her point of view, or use keywords that show up again in the assignment?
  • What kinds of assignments are typical in this discipline? Social science classes often expect more research. Humanities classes thrive on interpretation and analysis.
  • How do the assignments, readings, and lectures work together in the course? Instructors spend time designing courses, sometimes even arguing with their peers about the most effective course materials. Figuring out the overall design to the course will help you understand what each assignment is meant to achieve.

Now, what about your reader? Most undergraduates think of their audience as the instructor. True, your instructor is a good person to keep in mind as you write. But for the purposes of a good paper, think of your audience as someone like your roommate: smart enough to understand a clear, logical argument, but not someone who already knows exactly what is going on in your particular paper. Remember, even if the instructor knows everything there is to know about your paper topic, he or she still has to read your paper and assess your understanding. In other words, teach the material to your reader.

Aiming a paper at your audience happens in two ways: you make decisions about the tone and the level of information you want to convey.

  • Tone means the “voice” of your paper. Should you be chatty, formal, or objective? Usually you will find some happy medium—you do not want to alienate your reader by sounding condescending or superior, but you do not want to, um, like, totally wig on the man, you know? Eschew ostentatious erudition: some students think the way to sound academic is to use big words. Be careful—you can sound ridiculous, especially if you use the wrong big words.
  • The level of information you use depends on who you think your audience is. If you imagine your audience as your instructor and she already knows everything you have to say, you may find yourself leaving out key information that can cause your argument to be unconvincing and illogical. But you do not have to explain every single word or issue. If you are telling your roommate what happened on your favorite science fiction TV show last night, you do not say, “First a dark-haired white man of average height, wearing a suit and carrying a flashlight, walked into the room. Then a purple alien with fifteen arms and at least three eyes turned around. Then the man smiled slightly. In the background, you could hear a clock ticking. The room was fairly dark and had at least two windows that I saw.” You also do not say, “This guy found some aliens. The end.” Find some balance of useful details that support your main point.

You’ll find a much more detailed discussion of these concepts in our handout on audience .

The Grim Truth

With a few exceptions (including some lab and ethnography reports), you are probably being asked to make an argument. You must convince your audience. It is easy to forget this aim when you are researching and writing; as you become involved in your subject matter, you may become enmeshed in the details and focus on learning or simply telling the information you have found. You need to do more than just repeat what you have read. Your writing should have a point, and you should be able to say it in a sentence. Sometimes instructors call this sentence a “thesis” or a “claim.”

So, if your instructor tells you to write about some aspect of oral hygiene, you do not want to just list: “First, you brush your teeth with a soft brush and some peanut butter. Then, you floss with unwaxed, bologna-flavored string. Finally, gargle with bourbon.” Instead, you could say, “Of all the oral cleaning methods, sandblasting removes the most plaque. Therefore it should be recommended by the American Dental Association.” Or, “From an aesthetic perspective, moldy teeth can be quite charming. However, their joys are short-lived.”

Convincing the reader of your argument is the goal of academic writing. It doesn’t have to say “argument” anywhere in the assignment for you to need one. Look at the assignment and think about what kind of argument you could make about it instead of just seeing it as a checklist of information you have to present. For help with understanding the role of argument in academic writing, see our handout on argument .

What kind of evidence do you need?

There are many kinds of evidence, and what type of evidence will work for your assignment can depend on several factors–the discipline, the parameters of the assignment, and your instructor’s preference. Should you use statistics? Historical examples? Do you need to conduct your own experiment? Can you rely on personal experience? See our handout on evidence for suggestions on how to use evidence appropriately.

Make sure you are clear about this part of the assignment, because your use of evidence will be crucial in writing a successful paper. You are not just learning how to argue; you are learning how to argue with specific types of materials and ideas. Ask your instructor what counts as acceptable evidence. You can also ask a librarian for help. No matter what kind of evidence you use, be sure to cite it correctly—see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial .

You cannot always tell from the assignment just what sort of writing style your instructor expects. The instructor may be really laid back in class but still expect you to sound formal in writing. Or the instructor may be fairly formal in class and ask you to write a reflection paper where you need to use “I” and speak from your own experience.

Try to avoid false associations of a particular field with a style (“art historians like wacky creativity,” or “political scientists are boring and just give facts”) and look instead to the types of readings you have been given in class. No one expects you to write like Plato—just use the readings as a guide for what is standard or preferable to your instructor. When in doubt, ask your instructor about the level of formality she or he expects.

No matter what field you are writing for or what facts you are including, if you do not write so that your reader can understand your main idea, you have wasted your time. So make clarity your main goal. For specific help with style, see our handout on style .

Technical details about the assignment

The technical information you are given in an assignment always seems like the easy part. This section can actually give you lots of little hints about approaching the task. Find out if elements such as page length and citation format (see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial ) are negotiable. Some professors do not have strong preferences as long as you are consistent and fully answer the assignment. Some professors are very specific and will deduct big points for deviations.

Usually, the page length tells you something important: The instructor thinks the size of the paper is appropriate to the assignment’s parameters. In plain English, your instructor is telling you how many pages it should take for you to answer the question as fully as you are expected to. So if an assignment is two pages long, you cannot pad your paper with examples or reword your main idea several times. Hit your one point early, defend it with the clearest example, and finish quickly. If an assignment is ten pages long, you can be more complex in your main points and examples—and if you can only produce five pages for that assignment, you need to see someone for help—as soon as possible.

Tricks that don’t work

Your instructors are not fooled when you:

  • spend more time on the cover page than the essay —graphics, cool binders, and cute titles are no replacement for a well-written paper.
  • use huge fonts, wide margins, or extra spacing to pad the page length —these tricks are immediately obvious to the eye. Most instructors use the same word processor you do. They know what’s possible. Such tactics are especially damning when the instructor has a stack of 60 papers to grade and yours is the only one that low-flying airplane pilots could read.
  • use a paper from another class that covered “sort of similar” material . Again, the instructor has a particular task for you to fulfill in the assignment that usually relates to course material and lectures. Your other paper may not cover this material, and turning in the same paper for more than one course may constitute an Honor Code violation . Ask the instructor—it can’t hurt.
  • get all wacky and “creative” before you answer the question . Showing that you are able to think beyond the boundaries of a simple assignment can be good, but you must do what the assignment calls for first. Again, check with your instructor. A humorous tone can be refreshing for someone grading a stack of papers, but it will not get you a good grade if you have not fulfilled the task.

Critical reading of assignments leads to skills in other types of reading and writing. If you get good at figuring out what the real goals of assignments are, you are going to be better at understanding the goals of all of your classes and fields of study.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Definition of assign verb from the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary

Join our community to access the latest language learning and assessment tips from Oxford University Press!

  • 3 [ usually passive ] assign somebody to somebody/something to send a person to work under the authority of someone or in a particular group I was assigned to B platoon.
  • 4 to say that something has a particular value or function, or happens at a particular time or place assign something to something Assign a different color to each different type of information. assign something sth The painting cannot be assigned an exact date.
  • 5 assign something to somebody ( law ) to say that your property or rights now belong to someone else The agreement assigns copyright to the publisher. She has assigned the lease to her daughter.

Nearby words

Economy added robust 275,000 jobs in February, report shows. But a slowdown looms.

assignment job mean

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the month in which job gains were revised from 353,000 to 229,000. The January numbers were restated.

U.S. employers added a robust 275,000 jobs in February as hiring stayed strong despite high interest rates , persistent inflation and uncertainty about the economic outlook in a presidential election year.

But payroll gains for December and January were revised down by an outsized 167,000, portraying a much weaker picture of the recent labor market. January's booming 353,000 employment gains were downgraded significantly to 229,000, though that's still a sturdy total.

And the unemployment rate rose from 3.7% to 3.9%, the highest since January 2022, the Labor Department said Friday.

Economists had estimated that 200,000 jobs were added in February, according to a Bloomberg survey.

For some forecasters, steady downward revisions to the payroll totals since early last year add to evidence that 2024 will bring a sharp slowdown in job growth.

"The current trend in payrolls is steady, but a clear downturn is coming," says Ian Shepherdson, chief economist of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Are wages catching up to inflation?

Average hourly pay rose 5 cents to $34.57, pushing down the yearly increase from 4.4% to 4.3%.  

In January, cold and snowy weather in the Northeast and Midwest reduced the number of hours many employees worked and so artificially bumped up their hourly pay, economists say. Those effects largely reversed last month.

Since hitting a recent peak of 5.9% in March 2022, average annual wage growth has slowed as labor shortages have eased, but it’s still above the 3.5% pace Federal Reserve officials say would align with their 2% inflation goal.

The good news: Since spring last year, pay increases have outpaced inflation, giving consumers more purchasing power.

Will the Fed lower interest rates in 2024?

Economists said the report doesn’t change expectations that the Fed will probably start cutting interest rates in June, with the booming February job gains offset by the downgrades for previous months.

More significantly, yearly pay increases, which feed into inflation, dipped, giving the Fed some assurance that price increases should continue to slow. Fed Chair Jerome Powell told Congress this week that the central bank won’t begin trimming rates until it’s confident that inflation is moving sustainably toward the Fed’s 2% goal.

“The employment report does not change the view that the (Fed) will be patient in (cutting) rates,” says Nationwide economist Kathy Bostjancic. She said a rate cut will likely be on the table for May, but officials will probably wait at least until June before acting.

U.S. stocks added to their record levels on Friday after the mixed report appeared to bolster the case for easier interest rates later in the year.

The S&P 500 was 0.5% higher in morning trading and on track for its 17th winning week in the last 19. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 160 points, or 0.4%, as of 10 a.m. Eastern time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.8% higher

What field is hiring the most right now?

Last month, health care led the job gains with 67,000. Leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants and bars, added 58,000; government, 52,000; construction, 23,000;  transportation and warehousing, 20,000; and retail, 19,000.

But manufacturing shed 4,000 jobs and professional and business services added just 9,000.

What is the labor force participation rate?

In February, the labor force − which includes people working and job hunting − increased by 150,000, though the share of all adults in that group held steady at 62.5%, down from a recent high of 62.8% and 63.3% before the pandemic. The Fed would like to see that participation rate rise further to curb inflation, but leading economists believe it probably has topped out now that most Americans sidelined by COVID have returned to the work force and millions of baby boomers are retiring.

What is current job growth?

Job gains have been remarkably healthy in recent months, buoyed by companies’ reluctance to lay off workers after two years of pandemic-related labor shortages . But job openings and hires have steadily declined now that a post-COVID wave of catch-up hiring and consumer spending has run its course.

Even after Friday's substantial revisions, payroll gains approached 300,000 in December and remained vibrant in January. But the December figure was likely boosted by unseasonably warm weather and the January tally was magnified by low layoff totals after the holidays, economists said. In other words, employers hired fewer seasonal workers, resulting in fewer cuts in January.

Many businesses are still hesitant to let employees go after enduring severe labor crunches over the past couple of years. But that probably will mean softer hiring in the months ahead, Nomura wrote in a research note.

More broadly, job gains have slowed just gradually despite the Federal Reserve’s sharp interest rate hikes to fight high inflation, averaging 251,000 last year, down from 377,000 in 2022.

Will the job market get better in 2024?

Economists expect a sharper pullback in hiring this year. The delayed effects of the rate increases are expected to curb household and business spending. Pandemic-related savings are running dry. And low- and middle-income Americans burdened by record credit card debt and historically high delinquencies are likely to rein in purchases.

Although yearly inflation has fallen from a 40-year high of 9.1% in 2022 to about 3%, it’s still above the Fed’s 2% target. That's straining households. Meanwhile, the sizzling labor market that followed the pandemic has simmered down: Companies have grown more cautious about bringing on workers, and more Americans have returned to the labor force, joining a wave of immigrants.

In January, employers posted 8.9 million job ads, down slightly from the previous month and a peak of 12 million in March 2022. The number of new hires slipped to 5.7 million, below the pre-COVID level. And just 3.4 million workers quit jobs, the fewest since January 2021 and a sign that many don’t have another position lined up or are less confident they can find one.

Though the job market is cooling, the picture varies by industry and occupation, says Rajesh Namboothiry, senior vice president of staffing firm Manpower North America.

Companies are bringing on fewer employees in warehousing, finance, office support and administration and stepping up the hiring of technicians, engineers, scientists and factory automation specialists, Namboothiry says.

Are more layoffs coming in 2024?

Layoffs are poised to increase. Company notices of plant closures and mass layoffs are becoming more common, says Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics. He expects job gains to slow to 50,000 to 100,000 a month by spring and summer, nudging the unemployment rate higher.

The upshot: More workers are competing for fewer jobs and finding themselves up against hundreds of other applicants for each vacancy. The crunch is forcing job seekers to send out more applications to land a position, LinkedIn said in a recent report.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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Meaning of assignment in Essential English Dictionary

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(Definition of assignment from the Cambridge Essential Dictionary © Cambridge University Press)

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A.I. Is Learning What It Means to Be Alive

Given troves of data about genes and cells, A.I. models have made some surprising discoveries. What could they teach us someday?

Credit... Doug Chayka

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Carl Zimmer

By Carl Zimmer

  • Published March 10, 2024 Updated March 12, 2024

In 1889, a French doctor named Francois-Gilbert Viault climbed down from a mountain in the Andes, drew blood from his arm and inspected it under a microscope. Dr. Viault’s red blood cells, which ferry oxygen, had surged 42 percent. He had discovered a mysterious power of the human body: When it needs more of these crucial cells, it can make them on demand.

In the early 1900s, scientists theorized that a hormone was the cause. They called the theoretical hormone erythropoietin, or “red maker” in Greek. Seven decades later, researchers found actual erythropoietin after filtering 670 gallons of urine .

And about 50 years after that, biologists in Israel announced they had found a rare kidney cell that makes the hormone when oxygen drops too low. It’s called the Norn cell , named after the Norse deities who were believed to control human fate.

It took humans 134 years to discover Norn cells. Last summer, computers in California discovered them on their own in just six weeks.

The discovery came about when researchers at Stanford programmed the computers to teach themselves biology. The computers ran an artificial intelligence program similar to ChatGPT, the popular bot that became fluent with language after training on billions of pieces of text from the internet. But the Stanford researchers trained their computers on raw data about millions of real cells and their chemical and genetic makeup.

The researchers did not tell the computers what these measurements meant. They did not explain that different kinds of cells have different biochemical profiles. They did not define which cells catch light in our eyes, for example, or which ones make antibodies.

The computers crunched the data on their own, creating a model of all the cells based on their similarity to each other in a vast, multidimensional space. When the machines were done, they had learned an astonishing amount . They could classify a cell they had never seen before as one of over 1,000 different types. One of those was the Norn cell.

“That’s remarkable, because nobody ever told the model that a Norn cell exists in the kidney,” said Jure Leskovec, a computer scientist at Stanford who trained the computers.

The software is one of several new A.I.-powered programs, known as foundation models, that are setting their sights on the fundamentals of biology. The models are not simply tidying up the information that biologists are collecting. They are making discoveries about how genes work and how cells develop.

As the models scale up, with ever more laboratory data and computing power, scientists predict that they will start making more profound discoveries. They may reveal secrets about cancer and other diseases. They may figure out recipes for turning one kind of cell into another.

“A vital discovery about biology that otherwise would not have been made by the biologists — I think we’re going to see that at some point,” said Dr. Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

Just how far they will go is a matter of debate. While some skeptics think the models are going to hit a wall, more optimistic scientists believe that foundation models will even tackle the biggest biological question of them all: What separates life from nonlife?

Heart Cells and Mole Rats

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Biologists have long sought to understand how the different cells in our bodies use genes to do the many things we need to stay alive.

About a decade ago, researchers started industrial-scale experiments to fish out genetic bits from individual cells. They recorded what they found in catalogs, or “ cell atlases ,” that swelled with billions of pieces of data.

Dr. Christina Theodoris, a medical resident at Boston Children’s Hospital, was reading about a new kind of A.I. model made by Google engineers in 2017 for language translations. The researchers provided the model with millions of sentences in English, along with their translations into German and French. The model developed the power to translate sentences it hadn’t seen before. Dr. Theodoris wondered if a similar model could teach itself to make sense of the data in cell atlases.

In 2021, she struggled to find a lab that might let her try to build one. “There was a lot of skepticism that this approach would work at all,” she said.

Shirley Liu, a computational biologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, gave her a shot. Dr. Theodoris pulled data from 106 published human studies, which collectively included 30 million cells, and fed it all into a program she created called GeneFormer.

The model gained a deep understanding of how our genes behave in different cells. It predicted, for example, that shutting down a gene called TEAD4 in a certain type of heart cell would severely disrupt it. When her team put the prediction to the test in real cells called cardiomyocytes, the beating of the heart cells grew weaker.

In another test, she and her colleagues showed GeneFormer heart cells from people with defective heartbeat rhythms as well as from healthy people. “Then we said, Now tell us what changes we need to happen to the unhealthy cells to make them healthy,” said Dr. Theodoris, who now works as a computational biologist at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

GeneFormer recommended reducing the activity of four genes that had never before been linked to heart disease. Dr. Theodoris’s team followed the model’s advice, knocking down each of the four genes. In two out of the four cases, the treatment improved how the cells contracted.

The Stanford team got into the foundation-model business after helping to build one of the biggest databases of cells in the world, known as CellXGene . Beginning in August, the researchers trained their computers on the 33 million cells in the database, focusing on a type of genetic information called messenger RNA. They also fed the model the three-dimensional structures of proteins, which are the products of genes.

From this data, the model — known as Universal Cell Embedding, or U.C.E. — calculated the similarity among cells, grouping them into more than 1,000 clusters according to how they used their genes. The clusters corresponded to types of cells discovered by generations of biologists.

U.C.E. also taught itself some important things about how the cells develop from a single fertilized egg. For example, U.C.E. recognized that all the cells in the body can be grouped according to which of three layers they came from in the early embryo.

“It essentially rediscovered developmental biology,” said Stephen Quake, a biophysicist at Stanford who helped develop U.C.E.

The model was also able to transfer its knowledge to new species. Presented with the genetic profile of cells from an animal that it had never seen before — a naked mole rat, say — U.C.E. could identify many of its cell types.

“You can bring a completely new organism — chicken, frog, fish, whatever — you can put it in, and you will get something useful out,” Dr. Leskovec said.

After U.C.E. discovered the Norn cells, Dr. Leskovec and his colleagues looked in the CellXGene database to see where they had come from. While many of the cells had been taken from kidneys, some had come from lungs or other organs. It was possible, the researchers speculated, that previously unknown Norn cells were scattered across the body.

Dr. Katalin Susztak, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies Norn cells, said that the finding whetted her curiosity. “I want to check these cells,” she said.

She is skeptical that the model found true Norn cells outside the kidneys, since the erythropoietin hormone hasn’t been found in other places. But the new cells may sense oxygen as Norn cells do.

In other words, U.C.E. may have discovered a new type of cell before biologists did.

An ‘Internet of Cells’

Just like ChatGPT , biological models sometimes get things wrong. Kasia Kedzierska, a computational biologist at the University of Oxford, and her colleagues recently gave GeneFormer and another foundation model , scGPT, a battery of tests . They presented the models with cell atlases they hadn’t seen before and had them perform tasks such as classifying the cells into types. The models performed well on some tasks, but in other cases they fared poorly compared with simpler computer programs.

Dr. Kedzierska said she had great hopes for the models but that, for now, “they should not be used out of the box without a proper understanding of their limitations.”

Dr. Leskovec said that the models were improving as scientists trained them on more data. But compared with ChatGPT’s training on the entire internet, the latest cell atlases offer only a modest amount of information. “I’d like an entire internet of cells,” he said.

More cells are on the way as bigger cell atlases come online. And scientists are gleaning different kinds of data from each of the cells in those atlases. Some scientists are cataloging the molecules that stick to genes, or taking photographs of cells to illuminate the precise location of their proteins. All of that information will allow foundation models to draw lessons about what makes cells work.

Scientists are also developing tools that let foundation models combine what they’re learning on their own with what flesh-and-blood biologists have already discovered. The idea would be to connect the findings in thousands of published scientific papers to the databases of cell measurements.

With enough data and computing power, scientists say, they may eventually create a complete mathematical representation of a cell.

“That’s going to be hugely revolutionary for the field of biology,” said Bo Wang, a computational biologist at the University of Toronto and the creator of scGPT. With this virtual cell, he speculated, it would be possible to predict what a real cell would do in any situation. Scientists could run entire experiments on their computers rather than in petri dishes.

Dr. Quake suspects that foundation models will learn not just about the kinds of cells that currently reside in our bodies but also about kinds of cells that could exist. He speculates that only certain combinations of biochemistry can keep a cell alive. Dr. Quake dreams of using foundation models to make a map showing the realm of the possible, beyond which life cannot exist.

“I think these models are going to help us get some really fundamental understanding of the cell, which is going to provide some insight into what life really is,” Dr. Quake said.

Having a map of what’s possible and impossible to sustain life might also mean that scientists could actually create new cells that don’t yet exist in nature. The foundation model might be able to concoct chemical recipes that transform ordinary cells into new, extraordinary ones. Those new cells might devour plaque in blood vessels or explore a diseased organ to report back on its condition.

“It’s very ‘Fantastic Voyage ’- ish,” Dr. Quake admitted. “But who knows what the future is going to hold?”

If foundation models live up to Dr. Quake’s dreams, they will also raise a number of new risks. On Friday, more than 80 biologists and A.I. experts signed a call for the technology to be regulated so that it cannot be used to create new biological weapons. Such a concern might apply to new kinds of cells produced by the models.

Privacy breaches could happen even sooner. Researchers hope to program personalized foundation models that would look at an individual’s unique genome and the particular way that it works in cells. That new dimension of knowledge could reveal how different versions of genes affect the way cells work. But it could also give the owners of a foundation model some of the most intimate knowledge imaginable about the people who donated their DNA and cells to science.

Some scientists have their doubts about how far foundational models will make it down the road to “Fantastic Voyage,” however. The models are only as good as the data they are fed. Making an important new discovery about life may depend on having data on hand that we haven’t figured out how to collect. We might not even know what data the models need.

“They might make some new discoveries of interest,” said Sara Walker, a physicist at Arizona State University who studies the physical basis of life. “But ultimately they are limited when it comes to new fundamental advances.”

Still, the performance of foundation models has already led their creators to wonder about the role of human biologists in a world where computers make important insights on their own. Traditionally, biologists have been rewarded for creative and time-consuming experiments that uncover some of the workings of life. But computers may be able to see those workings in a matter of weeks, days or even hours by scanning billions of cells for patterns we can’t see.

“It’s going to force a complete rethink of what we consider creativity,” Dr. Quake said. “Professors should be very, very nervous.”

Carl Zimmer covers news about science for The Times and writes the Origins column . More about Carl Zimmer

Explore Our Coverage of Artificial Intelligence

News  and Analysis

OpenAI said that Sam Altman, the chief executive who was chaotically ousted in November only to return to the company five days later, would regain a seat on its board of directors .

In a move aimed at addressing fears that A.I. could be used to create bioweapons, over 90 biologists and other scientists have signed an agreement  that seeks to ensure that their research will move forward without exposing the world to serious harm.

Microsoft is seeking to dismiss parts of a lawsuit  brought by The New York Times Company against the tech giant and its partner OpenAI that accused the two of copyright infringement for using its articles to train A.I. technologies.

The Age of A.I.

By interacting with data about genes and cells, A.I. models have made some surprising discoveries and are learning what it means to be alive. What could they teach us someday ?

Covariant, a robotics start-up, is using the technology behind chatbots  to build robots that learn skills much like ChatGPT does.

When Google released Gemini, a new chatbot, the company quickly faced a backlash. The episode unleashed a fierce debate  about whether A.I. should be guided by social values.

A.I.’s booming growth is radically reshaping an already red-hot data center market, raising questions about whether these sites can be operated sustainably .

Few companies better illustrate how A.I. is changing Silicon Valley deal-making than Anthropic, one of the world’s hottest A.I. start-ups .

Advertisement

Watch CBS News

Labor market tops expectations again: 275,000 jobs added in February

By Kate Gibson

Edited By Anne Marie Lee

Updated on: March 8, 2024 / 2:45 PM EST / CBS News

The U.S. economy crafted another month of unexpectedly solid hiring in February, bolstering Wall Street's view that the Federal Reserve would begin trimming rates in the months ahead.

The Labor Department's nonfarm payrolls report had the U.S. economy adding 275,000 jobs last month versus expectations of 200,000, according to a survey of economists by data firm FactSet. The unemployment rate unexpectedly rose to 3.9% from 3.7%. That has the jobless rate at its highest level since January 2022.

"Admittedly, it was a close call, but unemployment has now remained below 4% for 25 straight months. That's the longest stretch since the late 1960s," offered Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.

What the latest job numbers mean for the Fed

That count of jobs added is down from January's unexpectedly strong tally of 229,000 — revised down from 290,000 — and 333,000 in December. The revisions collectively had December and January down 167,000, showing less strength in job growth than previous estimates. 

"Even so, the economy continues to create jobs at a fast rate. For the Fed, the gain in payrolls will be viewed against the moderation in wages and will be welcome news for policymakers," Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a report. "Our base case remains that the Fed will start lowering rates in June and will follow up with two more cuts, in September and December."

February's job gains came in health care, government, food services and bars, social assistance, transportation and warehousing, the labor department said. Average hourly earnings rose 5 cents to $34.57, after a hike of 18 cents in January. 

A month ago, the numbers showed a hotter-than-expected labor market, prompting Wall Street to reconsider its expectations for rate cuts this year. 

In speaking to lawmakers on Thursday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell reiterated that the central bank is "not far" from a decision to cut its benchmark rate as it tries to steer the economy toward a soft landing and avoid a recession. 

Powell previously indicated the Fed was not thinking about a rate cut at its next meeting later this month, shifting investors' focus on potential rate cuts to the middle of the year.

At or near record highs, stocks climbed in the wake of the report — with Wall Street on track for a 17th winning week out of the last 19 — as traders embrace the view that the increased unemployment rate will pave the way for Fed cuts to begin.

The optimism reflected by the record-high stock market, sharply lower inflation and a healthy job market is seemingly not reaching many Americans, with  polls suggesting that voters blame  President Joe Biden for the surge in consumer prices that began in 2021. 

Presidents famously  get credit  when the economy is performing well and blamed when it tanks. In reality, there's a limit to what the White House can do to change things quickly, with the economy's performance tied to broad global and domestic business cycles beyond the president's control.

  • Voters remember Trump's economy as being better than Biden's. Here's what the data shows.

On Friday, stocks weren't the only asset rallying to new records, as gold prices advanced for an eighth consecutive session, up 0.7% to $2,179.60 an ounce. 

The Fed's much-awaited step towards easing monetary policy is viewed by many as adding to gold's luster as opposed to yield-bearing assets such as bonds. Yet there are times when interest rates and gold prices climb in tandem, so exactly why gold climbs on any given day is mostly speculative, or a good guess, at best. 

Kate Gibson is a reporter for CBS MoneyWatch in New York.

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