New Scientist Evolves Laboratory’s Expertise


Senior Research Scientist John Burns takes a narrow focus to answer broad questions. By using advanced molecular techniques, he strives to understand how organisms adapt to, and alter, their environments. Such evolutionary cell biology questions can yield new perspectives on the ocean – and all life. Burns joined the Laboratory in August, adding his diverse research background and cutting-edge skillset to Bigelow Laboratory’s interdisciplinary science team.

"The deep focus on microbes at Bigelow Laboratory makes it the perfect place to continue my research," Burns said. "I am looking forward to leveraging the laboratory’s unique and collaborative platform for science to learn more about what these remarkable cells can teach us about the ocean and the planet."

Burns earned his bachelor’s degree in geology from Franklin and Marshall College and his PhD in molecular biology from New York University. Most recently, he held positions as a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History and at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Throughout his career, Burns has pursued diverse research questions, ranging from the molecular mechanisms underlying cancer to the unique symbiotic relationship that occurs between a type of salamander and an alga. Vertebrates, like salamanders and humans, don’t typically host other organisms within their cells. This uncommon relationship was what first prompted him to apply his molecular biology skillset to address an environmental question, a style of inquiry he has been following since.

Much of Burns’ work explores how unusual situations in cell biology can inform our understanding of the way larger systems function. He has used genomic techniques to study the origin of eukaryotic cells, a huge group that encapsulates everything from plant cells to mammals. That approach led him to discoveries about poorly-understood microbial feeding strategies and yielded a new perspective on productivity at the base of global ocean food webs.

"Having John join our team gives Bigelow the capacity to explore new research directions and provides opportunities to foster new research collaborations within the institution," said Jim McManus, vice president for research and administration at Bigelow Laboratory. "His work is at the cutting-edge of science, and I’m excited about the new discoveries that his research will help fuel."

As he begins his work at Bigelow Laboratory, Burns will study how single-celled microbes develop their intricate and incredibly variable structures. He will use molecular and computational techniques to determine how the vast diversity of shapes microbes can form is encoded by their genetic information – potentially revealing how cells of all types build their structures.

"By understanding genetic mechanisms in these very diverse and beautiful cells in the ocean, you become able to understand these mechanisms broadly," Burns said. "From a highly specific question about cell biology, it becomes possible to learn about the processes that power the ocean and answer incredible evolutionary questions."