Since its definition in the mid-20th century, epigenetics – the study of stable heritable yet reversible changes in gene expression or phenotype that are independent of underlying DNA sequence but determined by modification and organization of chromatin and its interaction with RNA – has emerged as a core genetics discipline. Continuing our PLOS Genetics’ editors series, Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid, a plant epigeneticist based at the Gregor Mendel Institute, Austria and member of the PLOS Genetics Editorial Board since 2015, explains her route into epigenetics research, reflects upon the field’s growth and wider applications, and discusses her support of Open Access publishing.
The Emergence of Epigenetics
Readers of PLOS Genetics will know that Gregor Mendel discovered fundamental principles of inheritance using plants as experimental model organisms. When the Austrian Academy of Sciences founded an institute devoted to research in plant molecular biology in Vienna, it was named in honour of this outstanding scientist. Although I have been a group leader at the Gregor Mendel Institute since 2004, the work we do there is to carry out research on non-Mendelian genetics, also called epigenetics. My interest in this field began from a side project during the early days of Arabidopsis transformation, due to some puzzling segregation of introduced traits. Driven by curiosity and fascination with the unexpected results, and with the luck and luxury of having freedom and the support of mentors and grant agencies, I had the opportunity to investigate this phenomenon further as my main research topic. I then experienced the rapid development of epigenetics: initially treated as an obscure topic in the last session of conferences, it is now not only one of the most exciting areas in basic research, but is also expanding into biotechnological and medical applications. Plants are great organisms for epigenetic research, mainly due to the ease of genetic experiments, the flexible germline, natural variation and extraordinary diversity of epigenetic regulation factors; at the same time, they share an ample number of epigenetic features with other organisms. Our current research addresses the role of chromatin in development, in response to heat stress and DNA damage, in connection with nuclear organization and the stability of epigenetic changes.
From Bench to Board
Since 2010, I have had the opportunity to serve these fields as an Editorial Board member for Plant Cell, the journal of the American Society of Plant Biology. With a few exceptions, I have published our own work in non-profit society journals and under Open Access licenses, and I support the campaign of publicly funded grant agencies in Europe to request OA publication for projects financed by them. Therefore, I happily accepted the invitation to join the Editorial Board of PLOS Genetics too, one of my favorite journals.
While my very first paper was accepted without revision (which never ever happened again), I have later received (of course, among several justified or unjustified rejection letters) some excellent and constructive comments from reviewers or editors which clearly improved the quality of the work beyond the first version. I try to provide similar feedback for other authors. If the basic concept of a manuscript addresses an important and interesting question with the right methodology and the necessary controls, and I can get help from the right reviewers, I find the role of an editor very satisfying. I also find it important to save other people’s time by rejecting less persuasive work, although this is definitely less fun. The thorough pre-screen by the Senior Editors at PLOS Genetics results in many manuscripts of the former category and ensures high editorial standards for the journal. And I won’t deny the personal aspect; its editorial board is full of intelligent colleagues. Some of them I have known for many years and I look forward to continued engagement in this new context. Not to forget the appreciation for the efficient and excellent support by the editorial office staff!
Competing interests: Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid is an Associate Editor for PLOS Genetics.
Credit for featured header image: Newtown grafitti, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Keep tuned to this series to find out more about our Editorial Board, PLOS Genetics and Open Access. For the first installment in this series, check out the blog post by Cancer Genetics Section Editors, David Kwiatkowski and Peter McKinnon.