Dr William (Barny) Whitman is an Academic Editor and Editorial Board Member for Hindawi’s journal: Archaea. He completed his PhD at The University of Texas in 1978. After holding many positions within the University of Georgia since 1993, he is now a Distinguished Research Professor of Microbiology, and directs Doctoral students, does outreach and has memberships in many and varied professional societies. He is also widely published.
What is your current area of research?
I am interested in the physiology (the functions and mechanisms) of prokaryotes that transform our atmosphere. Prokaryotes are single-celled microorganisms, such as bacteria and archaea, that lack a nucleus. With the methanoarchaeon Methanococcus, which produces the gas methane, my interests are three-fold. Methanogenesis, i.e. the production of methane, is still poorly understood. This form of anaerobic respiration, where carbon dioxide is breathed instead of oxygen, likely evolved early in the history of life and so is of fundamental interest. Methane is also a common fuel and understanding methanogenesis may lead to biotechnological applications in biofuel production. Lastly, the methanogens also represent one of the earliest lineages of prokaryotes. As such, they provide a view into the early evolution of life on earth. My lab has developed a robust culturing and genetic system in a species of Methanococcus, so we can address these questions. I also study marine bacteria that transform dimethylsulfoniopropionate into dimethylsulfide. This gas is a major source of sulfur in the atmosphere.
What is your background and how did you become a researcher in your field?
I began by studying autotrophic bacteria, which create their own food like plants do in photosynthesis. During my dissertation research on photosynthetic bacteria, one committee member suggested I study methanogens. This was about the time the archaea were ‘discovered’, making the topic more interesting. I was able to do my postdoctoral research in Ralph Wolfe’s lab at the University of Illinois, where I met Carl Woese and discussed the archaea in depth and continued this line of research.
Which issue do you feel is most urgent in your field of work and do you have any predictions for the future?
Our ignorance about the archaea is so vast that it all seems urgent, but the recent publications of metagenome assembled sequences of uncultured archaea is especially tantalizing. However, right now the rate-limiting step still seems to be isolation and cultivation of the organisms. The ability to grow an organism greatly increases the experimental approaches that can be used to study it. This always leads to big increases in understanding. Among the methanogens, problems in cultivation are common even for the isolated species.
What important developments are happening in your field?
I am excited by the increased understanding of the phylogeny of the archaea coming from analyses of genome sequences. Moving the root of the archaea to within the Euryarchaeota has tremendous implications for their biology. The discovery of the genes for methanogenesis within uncultivated metagenome assembled genomes is also quite exciting. It reveals a number of biological processes occurring on earth that were unanticipated. Moreover, it demonstrates that we need better microbiological, biochemical and molecular techniques for studying these organisms.
What attracted you to the position of Academic Editor in Archaea, and Hindawi as a publisher?
Being a journal editor helps me keep up to date with the latest research. I was an editor of Archaea before it joined Hindawi, and so I became an Academic Editor for Hindawi when it changed over. While I didn’t know much about Hindawi when I started working with the team, I have since been very impressed by their professionalism and dedication to academic excellence. Some of the papers I’ve edited for Archaea describe wonderfully conceived and executed experiments. These are the most fun.
What are your thoughts on Open Access? How has Open Access helped you in your research?
Open Access is wonderful. It allows your work to be available to anyone in the world. All things considered, it is relatively inexpensive in the Hindawi journals. I like the idea of published preprints as a way to increase the release of new information. However, I am concerned that there may be unintended consequences, so it will be good to evaluate its impact for a few years.
Why is this journal important for the field? What is its relevance to society?
Archaea is very relevant to society and important for the field right now. Science is a form of communication based upon exchange of experimental results. It is likely that there is an exponential relationship between the rate of scientific progress and the rate of exchange of scientific information. Research is a group effort where rapid and open communication benefits everyone. For instance, in the 1980s I was interested in developing a genetic system for the methanoarchaea. While my lab made some progress, we were helped immeasurably by the successes of other labs. Specialty journals like Archaea are important avenues for researchers in specific fields to exchange information: archaea researchers are pioneers in a young field. While many experiments fail to yield results of great importance to the wider community of biologists, reporting these results to specialists is essential to the growth of the field and the ability for the field to produce results of widespread interest.
That said, science is competitive, but I believe the most important competition is between fields and not within fields. Fields that fail to use the most up-to-date methods and produce findings of general interest perish. Researchers working on closely related questions are the ones who understand each other’s work the best and receive the most benefit from it. By providing a forum for researchers on Archaea, this journal promotes sharing ideas and collaborations towards a common goal.
Aside from the formal publications, the interaction between authors, reviewers and editors is another important opportunity for communication. While some of the information exchanged includes basics in paper preparation, ideas about scientific hypothesis, values, and ethics are also communicated during the reviewing process. Editors and peer-reviewers can use this opportunity to train younger scientists in our field. I like to think of this as part of the global university.
What advice would you give to a PhD researcher trying to write their first article?
My advice to someone who is writing up a PhD is this; I am a native English speaker, and I have been writing for a long time. It is still hard work. It takes almost as much time to write a good paper as it does to do the experiments, so always allow enough time. Then after you write the first draft, rewrite it ten more times. This is not a joke. When you are done, your paper should say what you mean and not what you know how to say.
I also find that often I haven’t thought deeply about the results until I write it up. Things that seem like minor points at the bench become critical observations when writing because writing forces you to think deeply about your results. While I have never been able to do this well, some very successful investigators write a summary as each experiment is completed. The summary contains brief statements of the rationale and conclusions and detailed descriptions of the methods and results, including figures and tables. When it is time to write their paper, they start by combining their summaries.
This interview is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.