Advancing ACS Chemical Biology: Interview with Editor-in-Chief Laura Kiessling, PhD

ACS Chemical Biology Editor-in-Chief Laura Kiessling uses one word to assert the journal’s philosophy: Interdisciplinary.

“Having researchers that are knowledgeable about both chemistry and biology has led to remarkable advances,” she says. Advocating this type of interdisciplinary approach has established ACS Chemical Biology as an important anchor in the chemical biology field, serving a somewhat new community of researchers that are able to interact under this one roof.

Kiessling argues that a biologist typically brings only one perspective to a chemical biology paper, likewise a chemist — and this would be problematic for those scientists who have bridged both disciplines and have submitted papers that reflect this. “Without a forum where people are actually trained in an interdisciplinary way to know both fields, it can be difficult to have papers that are appropriately reviewed and evaluated,” she says.

Kiessling’s passion for her journal is unquestionable, but she wears many other hats: mother, teacher, mentor and founder of Quintessence Biosciences — a biotech company focused on development of novel protein-based therapeutics. Not surprisingly, Kiessling finds herself doing research off the typical 9-5 office hours. “I do my research when I am feeling the most passionate – and I set the same guidelines for my staff. I don’t set office hours for anyone on staff.”

“With so many balls in the air, Laura works incredibly long, intense hours,” says Kris Turkow, Kiessling’s personal assistant. “She participates in numerous community outreach activities, such as speaking at local high schools, presenting her work to the public at the Wisconsin Science Festival, and hosting student groups in the lab.” Despite this, Kiessling sets aside time to review every submission to ACS Chemical Biology. That personal dedication is in large part why the journal has steadily earned the respect of peers in the field and provoked countless scientific discussions through its periodic Special Issues.

In early 2016, ACS Chemical Biology will publish a Special Issue on Epigenetics, one of the hottest areas in chemical biology presently. According to Kiessling, this special edition will cover inhibitors of epigenetic modifications, biochemical approaches, and the mechanisms of enzymes that carry out epigenetic modifications. “We have been using that knowledge to try and devise new strategies to culture human embryonic stems cells and induced pluripotent stem cells and then differentiate them to particular lineages,” she says. The issue will be curated by Tatiana Kutateladze (Department of Pharmacology, University of Colorado, Denver) whose research focuses on molecular mechanisms of epigenetic regulation.

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Leading the Field

Since its launch in 2006, ACS Chemical Biology has been at the forefront of publishing important breaking research. Kiessling recalls specific articles that exposed biological systems such as the visualization of biologically relevant molecules and activities inside living cells. Such innovations became central to the development of advanced instrumentation, a scenario that was occasioned by a problem Luke Lavis and Ronald Raines called “small-molecules or fluorophores which could obscure valuable information in biological experiments.” In their 2014 article, Lavis and Raines argued that they could individually isolate specific molecules from several others enabling the illumination of numerous biochemical and cell biological processes through super resolution imaging.

ACS Chemical Biology has published forefront methods for monitoring or perturbing biological interactions, for example, in regard to monitoring interactions, the popular HaloTag method for labeling proteins with small molecule fluorophores or reporters. A recent publication by Wood and coworkers describes the use of this engineered dehalogenase technology to identify the targets of small molecule probes. An example of perturbing interactions includes several publications by Matt Disney, who has pioneered a series of methods to generate and identify small molecules that regulate RNA.

With the rise of multi drug resistant TB and other super bug infections, the Obama administration has called for new investments in antimicrobial strategies to eliminate antibiotic resistance. ACS Chemical Biology has since published a number of exciting papers including new antimicrobial strategies for infections. “I am proud to say that a lot of our papers describe new approaches to antibiotic resistance,” Kiessling says, affirming the responsiveness of the journal to contemporary scientific puzzles.

In this tightly knit community of experts, the process of receiving and publishing papers in the ACS Chemical Biology journal is an elaborate but also relatively straightforward process As Editor-in-Chief, Kiessling reads each manuscript and determines which Associate Editor is best suited to handle the paper. Manuscripts for consideration by the external review board are selected through a rigorous team effort that calls for close collaboration with the authors whose concerns regarding, for example, potential conflict of interest are taken into consideration. The Associate Editors ultimately decide whether to reject or accept a manuscript.

“I think this group of Associate Editors covers tremendous breadth and depth,” says Kiessling. “From Asia, Europe to the United States, we have a very broad and international team.” As examples, she mentions Zixin Deng, a professor of microbiology and an expert in DNA backbone modification; Yukushige Ito from Japan, an accomplished synthetic chemist with interests in chemistry and biology of carbohydrates; Kai Johnsson an expert in applying chemical biology to imaging; Anna Mapp from the University of Michigan who studies nucleic acids; Daniel Rauh, from the Technische Universitӓt Dortmund in Germany is an expert at combining organic synthesis and chemical genetic strategies to selectively target proteins of interest; Jason Gestwicki at the University of California, San Francisco is known for his fundamental work towards understanding the role of protein misfolding in a variety of diseases; as well as UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, the brilliant structural biologist whom the New York Times described as “a pioneer who helped simplify genome editing,” for her work in discovering the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system.
The Art of Science

An art collector who keeps well-tended orchids and succulents in her office, Kiessling draws on her immediate surroundings to champion the role of society journals in non-profit communities, likening the venture to buying food from the neighborhood farmers market. “One of the advantages of eating local food is that the resources are from the community and they go back to the community,” she said. This sentiment extends to publishing with society journals versus a commercial publisher. Kiessling reiterates that ACS Chemical Biology empowers its community by involving practicing scientists in the editorial process. “It is useful to have people that are in the trenches,” she says.

A MacArthur genius award recipient and ACS Kavli lecturer, Kiessling traces her journey through chemical biology back to having George Whitesides as her first organic chemistry teacher at MIT, and Karl Barry Sharpless, her chemistry professor and a winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, who selected her as a teaching assistant at MIT.

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Today, Kiessling’s research work focuses on the biological role of carbohydrates, where she exploits the differences between mammalian and microbial glycans or sugar on every cell. She explains that cells are covered with a coat of carbohydrates;

Kiessling seeks to exploit the differences in microbes like bacteria and fungi that use different carbohydrates on their cell surfaces. Besides this, her lab is also looking at how cell-surface carbohydrates differ during development, with a view to devising new antimicrobial agents.

Being a beneficiary of mentoring herself, Kiessling recognized early the value of young scientists working alongside experienced hands and set up the ACS Chemical Biology Lectureship, which honors the contributions of an individual with a major impact on scientific research in the area of chemical biology. She administers the award together with the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry and uses this forum to funnel talent to the field.

“The Lectureship acts as a hook to introduce people in the community to some of the outstanding young scientists in the field,” she says. A majority of speakers at the symposium are typically assistant or early associate professors. “I love the symposium and lectures because it gives me an opportunity to learn about exciting young people in the field.”

Winners walk away with a plaque and a cash prize. Alumni include Carolyn Bertozzi, a professor of Molecular and cell biology at Stanford, whose research interests involve profiling changes in cell surface glycosylation associated with cancer, inflammation and bacterial infection and the Editor-in-Chief of ACS Central Science, and most recently, Kevin Shokat of the University of California San Francisco, whose lab is attempting to develop a small-molecule drug to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Even with rising college tuition costs that might deny some students a college education, and a political climate responsible for huge chunks of funding being lopped off research universities, Kiessling remains optimistic that the chemical biology community can address the most complex health and environmental questions of the day. From creating the next generation of drugs to understanding the role of enzymes in biomass production, and tackling antibiotic resistance, Kiessling reiterates that the mission of chemical biology has never been clearer. “There are a lot of interesting questions that we are currently addressing and will continue to address in this interdisciplinary field,” she says.

Special thanks to Kevin Davies, PhD, for edits made to this article.