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Synthetic Biology from an editor’s perspective: Interview with Ross Cloney


If you submit you synthetic biology paper to Nature Communications, Ross Cloney is the person that will handle your case. After obtaining his PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Sussex and two short postdoctoral positions, Ross decided he didn’t want to be a postdoc anymore. He applied for an editorial position, and his portfolio includes molecular biology, genetics, and most recently synthetic biology. He is the person behind the recent collection of the yeast SCRAMBLE papers. He also has an impressive beard, he is pleasant in conversation, and he was kind enough to spend some time—to the dismay of authors waiting for decision on their article?—to answer my questions about an editor’s point of view regarding synthetic biology.

Kostas Vavitsas: You receive an article with the keyword “synthetic biology”. How do you decide if it is really a synbio paper?

Ross Cloney: It is funny, because whenever I spend time with synthetic biologists, I ask them what they think synthetic biology is. I don’t want to say it’s like art but there is an aspect of you know it when you see it, since as a field that is growing and changing. I would consider it a subset of molecular biology, but instead of asking why, the researchers try to decompose and recreate. Synbio tools are used in basic biology research, but also in metabolic engineering, biotechnology, biomedicine… In many cases the lines are not clear, a study could be primarily genetics but using synthetic biology tools, or synthetic biology with applications in medicine.  It’s one of the reasons why I love Nature Communications because I have colleagues with such varied expertise which is great when working with a field like synthetic biology which loves to mingle with other disciplines. I also think that the field is at the point that we expect to see proof of principle and working systems. Initially the genetic circuits design and sensors were crucial for the development of the field, but now with all those tools, what do we do with them?


KV: Could you tell us about your experience with the yeast SCRAMBLE collection? How was it initiated and why was it decided to publish it as a group of papers?

Ross: Without going into too many behind the scene details, the effort started when the SCRAMBLE papers came to Nature Communications.  I had spoken to the authors at conferences and lab visits, so I was aware that there were these articles and potentially a few more close to submission, so I came up with the idea of putting together a synbio collection. I contacted the authors, they were positive to the idea, and from there we moved forward through review and to publication. The whole process required a lot of coordination, but it ran smoothly. In fact I never felt that stressed during the process with one exception:  I wanted to have everything ready in time so I could attend a friend’s wedding in Italy with the collection done and published.  I was in the bridal party and it would have been a bad look if I was on my phone pressing ‘PUBLISH’ while my friend walked down the aisle! I must thank the authors for their great work and our fantastic reviewers that did a phenomenal job and of course the proofreading and production teams here who helped coordinate the publishing process, I think I was a terror asking for updates all the time.

Read more: I am known by many names, but it’s all SCRAMBLEd

 KV: Do you think we will see a future filled with synthetic biology applications? What do you find exciting about synbio and what concerns you?

Ross: What’s the saying; if you have a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail. I think synthetic biology has created a positive momentum, but I worry that I start seeing similarities with the genetic engineering era in the 90s. It was the time of Jurassic Park and the GMOs, and a lot of overhype on how genetic engineering would change so many things in our everyday lives. It certainly has, but maybe not in the way it was portrayed. I think something similar will happen with synthetic biology. Let’s face it; there are areas where, for scientific, technical or social reasons, there will be no synbio applications.. I think about the graph that plots out how a technology develops a lot and where synbio today fits on it. It is important that the community is not dealt a significant blow when the hype cycle reaches the valley of disillusionment. I find very positive the incorporation of the social sciences and the humanities in synbio, inviting in people that examine the role of science in society. Another positive mark goes to the culture of openness present in the community.


General hype cycle for technology By NeedCokeNow – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

KV: What is your opinion on CRISPR, the potential applications and the related patent battle?

Ross: I am amazed by the speed that CRISPR has been incorporated in research. If you told me a few years ago that people would use a bacterial immunity system to visualise the location of a sequence on the chromosome, I wouldn’t believe it. When I left the lab, which was only a bit over four years ago, we hadn’t started using CRISPR yet and now it’s taught to undergraduates. Regarding the patent battle, I sometimes follow the news, but it is not something that directly concerns me as an editor.  I am making my decisions based on the science presented to me in papers I handle.


KV: And what is the role of an editor in synthetic biology?

Ross: Depends what type of editor you mean.  Social acceptance is very important for the development and survival of a discipline. That makes media editors very important, as they have the big responsibility of representing the science accurately to the public. Today, if we are at the point where measles outbreaks return to developed countries, arguably this role is really significant.

The role of journal editors is quite different. 99% of the articles that I am receiving are publishable, but may not be suitable for Nature communications, or at least not in its current form. I love thatwe are an online journal and this alleviates some of the restrictions a print journal has; I sometimes say my editorial capacity is limited only by needing to eat and sleep. I therefore aim to have a positive effect on the papers I receive. Even if we are not interested in a work at Nature Communications, other journals could be; as far as I can, I try to contribute into making them better.


KV: You are organising a conference in Shanghai in October, do you want to say a few words about it?

Ross: Thankfully I’m not organising it on my own! It’s a collaboration between my team at Nature Communications, there are six of us that handle papers that fall under the broad category of biotechnology and methods, Nature Conferences and our partners: The Institute of Plant Physiology & Ecology at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and East China University of Science and Technology.

We’re really excited about it since we hope this will bring together a lot of researchers who might not necessarily attend the same conferences; it’s focused on resource allocation because we want to get people who design and build models of metabolism sat down next to people working on how to manipulate cellular processes, like synthetic biology.  I’m really looking forward to it.


KV: If you were not an editor in Nature communications, what job would you be doing?

Ross: I am very much embedded into editing and it is a job I really like. I get the chance to read a lot of different kinds of research, see some interesting science without having spent a year of my life to get the assay working.  Having done that, I’m certain that part of my life is over. What would I do if wasn’t an editor? I think that this is a very good question and I hope I won’t have to answer it any time soon.

Editor’s (the PLOS synbio one’s) note: Answers were edited for length and clarity

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