Miguel De la Rosa: "... curiosity – rather than intelligence – is the essential characteristic of the scientist..."
Miguel De la Rosa, FEBS Open Bio’s first Editor-in-Chief, sets out his plans for the journal, and what he considers the key attributes for a successful scientific career
What are your views on open access?
Open access to the peer-reviewed journal literature makes a lot of sense: research work at public institutions is usually funded by governments with the taxes paid by citizens, so not only scientists, teachers and students but also any layperson should have the right to know what their money is being used for. But I dislike the term "open access" as it gives the impression that the traditional subscription-based system is a "closed access" system, which is not fully true. In addition, I am also concerned about the impact that a switch to author-pays open access will have on scientific societies and institutions such as FEBS. A severe reduction in incomes from journal revenues might lead to a drastic decrease in their activities and initiatives to support young scientists (e.g. congresses, courses, fellowships, awards, etc.). The pros and cons of adopting open access are still strongly debated, and so it is difficult to foresee what the final outcome will be.
What plans do you have for FEBS Open Bio?
I’ve only been in post since 1 January 2020 and so I’m still working with the editorial staff on plans for the future development of the journal. These include a recognition campaign and promotion of top cited and highly downloaded articles, the publication of reviews and methods articles, and an increase in submissions from some countries and geographical areas. I’ve already implemented changes to the reviewing process and made new appointments to the editorial board. Next is the introduction of an advisory board and strengthening of the pool of volunteer reviewers. I’m also keen to increase cross-promotions between FEBS Open Bio and the FEBS Congress – the journal already publishes the Congress Abstracts Supplement. All of these initiatives are part of a coordinated long-term strategy to enhance the scientific quality of published articles, as well as to increase the number of accepted manuscripts so as to increase journal revenues for FEBS. This is a delicate balance as these two objectives can work in opposite directions – an increase in quality often means publishing fewer papers. So we have to move carefully in the short/medium-term to reach our objectives.
What are, from your point of view, the characteristics that define a good scientist?
In my opinion, curiosity – rather than intelligence – is the essential characteristic of the scientist, as well as intellectual capacity and training. Vocation is another key element, without which the enormous personal sacrifice that the scientific career requires to be in the forefront at the international level is simply not possible. The well-known physical equation Work = Power x Time could exemplify that capability and working time are the two major ingredients needed for great science. In other words, a person can have a brilliant mind, but their performance and production will not reach the level of excellence and international recognition without a dedication that goes well beyond the standard working day.
What advice would you give to those who now start their scientific career?
I would advise young scientists to choose carefully the laboratory in which to start, to ensure they are training in a top quality group, and to forget about the clock before entering the lab each day. The world of science must be entered with a capacity for absolute dedication and a quick and willing spirit of adventure, excited – as the Nobel laureate Severo Ochoa said – by the excitement of discovery. The key is to make science your way of life, to make work your hobby, to make research your profession.
Tell us about your favourite published papers from your lab
One of my favourite papers is a nice piece of work on photosynthetic metalloproteins done in collaboration with Derek Bendall and Chris Howe (Nature 2003). We had previously studied the convergent evolution of cytochrome c6 and plastocyanin – the two proteins differ in their primary and 3D structures but have the same physiological function, the transfer of electrons in photosynthesis. We had also proposed that cytochrome c6 first evolved when iron was much more available than copper, because of the reducing character of the Earth’s atmosphere. Then, as the atmospheric molecular oxygen concentration was rising because of photosynthetic activity, the relative bioavailability of iron went down while that of copper went up, and so cytochrome c6 was replaced with plastocyanin. We demonstrated that such replacement could take place in cyanobacteria and algae but not in plants, in which plastocyanin is the only electron carrier between the cytochrome bf complex and photosystem I.
Another favourite paper was published more recently (PNAS 2015). We found that the human histone chaperone SET/TAF-Iβ is a key partner of mitochondrial cytochrome c following DNA breaks, thus indicating that the respiratory hemeprotein might modulate chromatin dynamics through competitive binding to histone chaperones in the cell nucleus. Previously, we had identified an ample set of functionally related cytochrome c partners in highly distant phylogenetic groups, such as humans and plants, thereby pointing toward the existence of an evolutionarily conserved core programmed cell death control module. These data indicated that cytochrome c, once released into the cytoplasm, turns on cell death by simultaneously activating proapoptotic signaling pathways and inhibiting the prosurvival ones.
Introduction to Miguel De la Rosa’s work
Our research has focused on the structure–activity relations of biological macromolecules and, in particular, protein–protein and protein–nucleic acid interactions, which are crucial for a very broad range of cell processes and diseases. We use a clear-cut multi- and interdisciplinary technology, ranging from molecular and cell biology to biochemistry, biophysics, structural biology and computational chemistry. We have conducted landmark studies of metal-containing protein evolution connected to geochemical changes as driven by atmospheric oxygen increase. Our current research projects are mainly aimed at unveiling the molecular mechanism and structural basis of programmed cell death, as well as the cross-talk between nucleus and mitochondria in cell life and disease.
Lab webpage: https://www.iiq.us-csic.es/en/biointeractomics
Two recent papers:
- González-Arzola, K. et al. (2019) New moonlighting functions of mitochondrial cytochrome c in the cytoplasm and nucleus (review article). FEBS Letters 593, 3101-3119, doi: 10.1002/1873-3468.13655
- Lagunas, A. et al. (2018) Long distance electron transfer through the aqueous solution between redox partner proteins. Nature Communications 9, 5157, doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-07499-x