On the occasion of PLOS ONE’s 10th anniversary, we interview some of our our earliest Editorial Board Members who supported us from the start and are still doing so 10 years later. First under the spotlight for this Meet the Editor series is Mark Isalan!
Mark Isalan is a reader in Gene Network Engineering in the department of life sciences at Imperial College London, UK. He carried out a Ph.D. on zinc fingers at the MRC LMB, in the University of Cambridge, UK under the supervision of Prof. Sir Aaron Klug and did a postdoc at Gendaq Ltd, UK. Mark was then awarded a Wellcome Trust International Research Fellowship to carry out research on engineering artificial gene networks in Prof. Luis Serrano’s group at the EMBL Heidelberg, Germany. From 2006-2013 he was a group leader at the EMBL-CRG Systems Biology Unit in Barcelona, specialising in synthetic gene network engineering before moving to Imperial College London. Mark joined the PLOS ONE Editorial Board in 2006 at the launch of the journal and is now a Section Editor for Systems and Synthetic Biology.
How did you first become interested in gene network engineering?
I originally trained as a protein engineer, making synthetic zinc finger transcription factors. The move towards engineering genetic circuits was a natural one – just going up a level in complexity from what I was previously doing. The underlying question is whether we can make cells and biological systems do what we want them to do.
What challenges and developments can we expect to see for this field in the next few years?
The big questions are how far we can convert these technologies to solve real world problems. On one side, we are still playing with ‘toy systems’ that are really useful for testing the limits of what we can engineer with biological components. But the proof of the pudding will be whether we can apply the new generation of synthetic biology tools to real applications, such as gene therapy. For example, we’ve made quite a lot of progress in the last year in delivering synthetic transcription factors in viruses to control Huntington’s disease. We showed that a single adeno-associated virus (AAV) injection expressing a zinc finger transcription factor (that we designed) can shut down mutant Huntingtin for 6 months in mice. The ‘bad gene’ could be switched off up to 77% in whole brains. In the next few years I expect to see more applications of synthetic biology coming of age.
You joined PLOS ONE’s editorial board when the journal was launched 10 years ago. What attracted you to PLOS ONE in the first place?
The idea of accepting papers based purely on their technical quality and not perceived ‘impact’ was a game changer and it was immediately attractive to me at the time. In following 10 years, it has caused a wave of change in publishing. With so many others following PLOS ONE’s model, it’s easy to forget how radical it was at the time and how the ‘impact’ journals felt threatened. I’m really pleased to have been invited to be part of it. In a way, PLOS ONE has led the way in maximising the impact of the World Wide Web on science.
The journal has grown beyond expectations. Why do you think a journal like PLOS ONE – a multidisciplinary and rigor-focused journal- is relevant to scientists in general and within your field in particular?
PLOS ONE is a neutral venue with easy open access and great papers can thrive in it – if you do a web search for “PLOS ONE” in Scholar portals you can see how many PLOS ONE papers have been cited hundreds and thousands of times. This is striking for a journal that does not emphasise ‘impact’. This is healthy for science and PLOS ONE remains a very relevant place to submit scientific research in any field. In my own field – synthetic biology – the PLOS Synthetic Biology Collection which I curated in my role as PLOS ONE Editorial Board Member, is a way of organising and viewing a lot of papers and trends. Any PLOS SynBio paper can be recommended for inclusion in the cross-journal collection and this increases the number of interested people who read our papers.