Editor's Corner: Founding Editor Dr. Peter Gunning Interview BioArchitecture

Founding Editor-in-Chief: Peter Gunning

Oncology Research Unit, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia  

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For a basic outline of your career, would you briefly discuss your initial schooling, key research moments, and current workplace?

I was born in Melbourne, one of the major cities in Australia, in 1950 and did all my schooling in the public school system. I started at Monash University in Melbourne in 1969 at the height of the anti-war movement and divided my time between studies and political activities. I was introduced to Biochemistry in 1970 and this became my passion. I was lucky that Monash was a brilliant place to do biochemistry at that time and this was the turning point in my life. I was destined to do biomedical research from that point. During my Honours research year I was jailed for refusal to cooperate with the Vietnam War draft and had to go underground for the last 6 months of 1972. Fortunately the politics of Australia changed at the end of that year and I returned to complete my Honours. I came out of this with a healthy cynical approach to authority which has influenced my approach to science.

My PhD research training all involved animal based biochemistry which influenced my approach to biomedical research. Subsequently I was a postdoc and then senior scientist at Stanford and it was here that I was introduced to molecular genetics and cell biology and most important, evolutionary biology. Gene cloning was new, as was the genetic manipulation of cells. I was driven to understand how genes could determine the morphology of different cells and during my postdoc I cloned the human striated muscle contractile proteins and the actins and tropomyosins of the cytoskeleton. So when I returned to Australia I was ready to start manipulating the actin cytoskeleton and testing the roles of actin and tropomyosins on cell morphology.

The key research moments were recognizing that the different isoforms of actin and tropomyosin can specify unique features of cell morphology, that the isoforms are segregated to different locations in cells, and that their unique functions derive from their ability to specify the functional capability of each different type of actin filament. This led to two key relationships. Collaboration with Edna Hardeman led to the generation of genetically manipulated mice and the linkage of different aspects of animal physiology with specific types of actin filaments. Collaboration with a fund raiser, Col Reynolds, led to the application of our work for childhood cancer. We set out to make drugs which incapacitated the architecture of childhood cancer cells by targeting the tropomyosin common to neuroblastoma, and in fact, all cancer cells. The initial drugs were subject to medicinal chemistry by the Australian biotech company Novogen and the first of the clinical lead drugs should enter the clinic early in 2017. The ideas that actin and tropomyosin isoforms could specify features of architecture and that tropomyosins could be turned into drug targets were incompatible with thinking in the cytoskeleton field for many years and is only now becoming accepted in the field.  

I am currently the Head of the School of Medical Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. I share my time between administration of the School, running a research group in collaboration with Edna Hardeman and sitting on the Board of Novogen.


Who was a key mentor for you (either that someone you personally worked with or admired from afar)?

Prof Eric Shooter, my first postdoc supervisor, was a key mentor for me and it was he who suggested that before I returned to Australia I should learn either monoclonal antibody production or molecular cloning. He had a very open attitude to new ideas and was the epitome of someone who did very careful science which has set quality benchmarks.

What (personal or research) breakthrough do you think was most pivotal in your career?

That is easy. I had two PhD students, Galina and Catriona, who had initially unrelated projects. Galina was looking at the impact of transfected beta actin genes of myoblast architecture and Catriona was looking at regulatory regions in the gamma actin gene. Galina noticed that beta actin caused the cells to become larger and more contractile whereas Catriona noticed that gamma actin caused the cells to become smaller with ruffled membranes. The impact of the two genes caused opposite changes in the tropomyosin isoform composition of actin filament bundles. That made us realize that the actin and tropomyosin isoform composition of filament bundles could direct fundamental changes in cell architecture and that became the origin of our work.  

What was a memorable experience in the lab that immediately comes to mind that made an impact (of any kind) on you?

We were struggling to see the assembly of sarcomeres in our differentiated muscle cells back in 1988 and we had heard of a new type of microscope, called a confocal microscope, which might allow us to see the assembly of architecture inside our cells. We got in the car and drove to Canberra to visit a lab which had one of these microscopes. When we placed our fixed cells on their microscope we could now see patches of sarcomere assembly. It was so completely cool. We drove back to Sydney and knew we had to get such a microscope.  

Much of your research focuses on the term BioArchitecture, which you created. Why did you feel a new terminology was needed? When in your career did you create the term?

When Ron Landes suggested it would be a good idea to create the journal it made me think about how to capture the idea that biological space is one of the core tenets of biology. As Schrodinger asked in his 1944 book, What is Life, “How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?” This can be phrased more provocatively as “Is biology no more than physics and chemistry organized in time and space?” to which it is becoming increasingly clear that the answer is yes! So understanding biological space is absolutely fundamental to any understanding of biology. It applies at the level of organelles in cells, cells, tissues and organisms. So I remember Edna, myself and our administrator, Julie Ward, sitting in my office kicking around ideas. Space, biology, architecture, morphology, structure, etc were kicked around. I was hung up on Biological Architecture (which defied the Ron Landes preference for single word journal titles) and at one point Julie suggested BioArchitecture as an truncated version. The moment she said it we just stopped and immediately recognized that it was perfect.

How did you settle on the final word choice?

The first moment it came out of Julie’s mouth we knew that was it! It was instant recognition. It resonated immediately.

When and where did you start using the term BioArchitecture officially in published research or presentations outside of your own personal use?

The moment Julie came out with it I emailed Ron Landes. He was on board as soon as he saw it. The I received an email a few weeks later with the design featuring an element of the classic Leonardo De Vinci image of man built on the capital A for Architecture and I was just blown away. It all fitted together and the first time the word was used was in the initial flyer for the journal and the first issue. I now use it routinely when I talk about our work because it captures the concept of biological space rather well.

When did you notice others using your term? Your feelings at that moment?

It started when I was receiving submissions for the journal and I noticed that authors were using the term in their submissions to the journal. I realized that it had struck a chord in the community. I was very happy because I recognized that it was going to become a very useful way of communicating a key concept that underpins our understanding of biology.

What was the main points behind deciding to base a journal purely on this subject?

The idea of the journal is to encourage the community to think in a different way about biology. The organisation of space is absolutely fundamental and yet I felt that it was not sufficiently appreciated. It is not just a cell thing, a tissue thing, it is a core tenet of biology. There is no discussion forum for such thinking and hence I thought the journal could promote a different way of thinking about biology which is not restricted to a molecular reductionist view of life. There was also a conviction that understanding biological space would reveal common principles which operate at all levels of organisation.

Any comments as the founding editor-in-chief of BioArchitecture?

The aim of the journal is to promote a new way of thinking and it is now even more clear to me than ever how important this role will be going into the future.


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