Burns Probes Evolution Across the Tree of Life


If you ask most marine biologists how they got into the field, they talk about falling in love with the ocean from a young age. John Burns, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory, had a less linear path. In fact, he didn’t take a single biology class in college, and his PhD focused on cancer, not the ocean. But each stop on his winding journey has equipped Burns with new tools — and new interests — that are reflected in the diversity of his research today, studying everything from salamanders to deep-sea creatures previously unknown to science.

“Molecular biology is all about experimentation, and you’re constantly having to reassess and adapt,” Burns said. “That approach to science fits my personality well, and it’s a good metaphor for my professional journey.”

Burns began his scientific journey at Franklin and Marshall College majoring in chemistry and physics. But after a year and a half struggling to engage in his studies, he took a break from school, using all of his savings to get to Los Angeles. LA was a hub for the chemical industry at that time, and Burns wanted to get practical experience.

Instead, he found himself working as an extra in movies and TV.

“Everybody I met in LA wanted to be a movie star, and I wanted to be a chemist,” Burns joked. “But it was a fun way to live for a while, and it forced me to think about where I wanted to put my energy.”

Burns returned to university with renewed motivation and openness. He tried different kinds of classes, found new mentors, and switched his major to geology. After graduation, he continued to try new things, working for a time with NASA mapping the surface of Mars and then with the USGS studying arsenic in groundwater — in the same Maine county where Bigelow Laboratory resides of all places. He even spent time sailing boats across the Gulf of Mexico.

Senior Research Scientist John Burns with students from the AP Biology class at the regional high school into the field to find salamanders

But when Burns’ younger brother got cancer, the shock, he said, provided him with a focused path forward.

“I realized I didn’t know anything about what cancer was or how it worked,” Burns said. “I hadn’t taken a biology class since high school, and I lived on a boat in the Florida Keys at the time, but I knew I wanted to learn more and be in a position to answer my own questions.”

Fortunately, NYU professors Christine Rushlow and David Scicchitano took a chance on him, and he moved to New York for graduate school to study the mutations that lead to cancer.

Through that work, Burns came to appreciate the tools scientists have to analyze and interpret DNA. But when he closed his eyes and thought about how he wanted to use those tools, he didn’t think about cancer. Instead, he pictured radiolarians, a type of single-celled zooplankton he learned about in college that form intricate glass skeletons and about which scientists know relatively little. Just a handful of labs in the world studied them. So, after finishing his PhD, Burns dove right in and reached out to those labs. He soon found himself in Norway.

There, Burns attended a conference on marine protists, organisms like radiolarians that are in the same domain as animals, land plants, and fungi but different from all of them. Burns was quickly hooked on this strange world that contained some of the weirdest and most beautiful organisms he’d encountered. There, he also met Eunsoo Kim, a microbiologist at the American Natural History Museum who would become his postdoctoral advisor.

Burns had found his niche, applying the skills he developed as a geologist and cancer researcher to ask fundamental questions about the most fundamental unit of life.

Senior Research Scientist John Burns making adjustments to a submersible on the deck of a ship

“The field I consider myself a part of, which is still emerging, is evolutionary cell biology,” Burns said. “I’m interested at the most basic level in how a cell works. How does it digest information it’s receiving from the environment and from other cells around it and connect that to its own genetic code? How does that translate into a specific shape and function?”

Burns has explored the molecular changes caused by a symbiotic relationship between salamanders and a type of algae that live in salamander eggs. He’s developed an algorithm to determine how an organism feeds based on its genome. Recently, he was part of a team that developed a new method that was published in Science Advances to identify and describe fragile deep-sea animals using robotics. And currently, he’s engaged in several projects that look at how protist cells have evolved different means of communication — and if that can provide insight on the development of plants and animals.

Burns is particularly drawn to the lesser-studied branches of life. Studying “outliers” on the tree of life and seeing where and how they diverged can help scientists develop general principles that might apply across all the branches.

“If you take something really unique and interesting and solve that problem, you can start to learn something that is applicable everywhere,” Burns said. “Genomics provide a lot of really valuable tools for understanding cells, but there will continue to be limitations to those tools until we can generalize across the full range of life’s possibilities.”

Photo 1: A constellation of acantharians, a group of radiolarians of the type Burns studies (Courtesy of John Burns).

Photo 2: Burns takes students from the AP Biology class at the regional high school into the field to find salamanders (Courtesy of Emily Higgins).

Photo 3: Burns fixes a device on a deep-sea submersible before it dives for an interdisciplinary project to capture and describe fragile marine animals (Courtesy of Brennan Phillips).