Nobel prizes, peer review, Open Access and bioinformatics: four awesome things


Nobel prizes can sometimes set me a-wondering what the point in journals is. One of the most well-known Nobel-winning papers, that of Watson & Crick, was published in Naturesixty years agowithout peer review (readers of Science's recent so-called 'sting' on Open Access and peer review might want to take note of the fact that Nature is not, nor has it ever been, an Open Access journal).

Alfred Nobel: the man who started it all

Reverse to the trigger-happy antics at Nature, which generally did not bother with peer review in the 1950s (and when it did, viewed a bit of a chinwag in a Pall Mall gentleman's club to be up to the task), was the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics' decision in 1964 to reject a treatise by two teenage Soviet students on what became known as 'the Higgs mechanism'. Later that year, three other sets of scientists successfully published papers on this phenomenon, for which two of them – Peter Higgs and François Englert – won the 2013 Nobel prize in Physics.

These and other examples (such as Nature's decision in the 1930s to turn down Krebs' Nobel prize-winning work on the citric acid cycle) serve only to remind us that journals are not perfect, and Genome Biology would of course not argue with sincerity that our existence is pointless.

Misplaced attacks on the Open Access movement would do well to remember that the Editorial Boards of the best Open Access journals are populated by researchers every bit as respected as those who inhabit the Editorial Boards of our paywalled counterparts. Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof, who together with Jim Rothman were awarded the 2013 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine, are perfect examples of this: Schekman is the Editor-in-Chief of eLife and Südhof is on the Editorial Board of BioMed Central's very own BMC Neuroscience.

Membrane traffic: a schematic

Schekman, Südhof and Rothman were recognized for their work in developing the study of membrane trafficking, a field shown by Genome Biology's archive to have had cause to crossover with our own realms of genomics and computational biology. The trafficking machinery at the heart of the laureates' research relies on repetition of the same domains in different proteins to bend, break, transport, fuse and sort membranes at different intracellular locations. The generation of sequence data, together with bioinformatics methods that identify sequence homology, has enabled the identification of novel factors in the membrane trafficking machinery.

In some cases, such as AP5 (reported in an Open Access journal), computational approaches have discovered homologs on the basis of structure, where the sequences themselves were too diverged for detection.

Michael Levitt

But the achievements of bioinformatics in the field of structural biology are far more immense than the identification of the odd homolog, as has been recognized by the award of the 2013 Nobel prize in Chemistry to Michael Levitt, Arieh Warshel and Martin Karplus for achievements in computational modeling of complex chemical systems – especially notable for work on structural biology. BioMed Central journal BMC Structural Biology has published a number of Levitt's papers.

More generally, Genome Biology is joined at BioMed Central by a number of journals who, like us, have a strong bioinformatics bent, and so we are collectively delighted to see the Nobel committee's ennoblement of computational biology. And we will continue to publish the best of bioinformatics in all its peer reviewed glory.