Brendan Burns

Senior Lecturer

Dr Brendan Burns is the Honours coordinator for BABS

Research Program

Dr Burns has expertise in the study of stromatolite communities. Of particular significance, Dr Burns conducted the first polyphasic study of modern stromatolite communities identifying a range of metabolically diverse organisms. These included a range of cyanobacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, and archaea. This is the first time such a diversity of archaea associated with marine stromatolites has been shown. Several sequences identified are also unique phylotypes with no close relatives in the database, and these may possess novel physiologies vital to the persistent morphogenesis of these living fossils. Characterising the microbial diversity of these stromatolites provided an excellent framework for exploring functional characteristics of these systems to logically advance the research. This is the next rational step in the comprehensive investigation of these ancient ecosystems.

Using this excellent base, Dr Burns has isolated several new archaeal species from this environment that possess unique characteristics, including novel osmolyte patterns suggestive of innovative salt tolerance mechanisms. This has the potential for providing results of national significance in relation to Australia's growing salinity and drought problems. Dr Burns' group has conducted lipid analyses of these communities, which will provide vital information for comparisons with fossilised stromatolites and more rational interpretations of the fossil record.

Dr Burns has also demonstrated for the first time the genetic potential of these systems to produce novel bioactive compounds, including the identification of a putative anti-cancer agent. Most recently Dr Burns and collaborators identified quorum-sensing molecules in stromatolite archaea, potentially the first evidence of this in this domain of life. Dr Burns' findings have also provided information vital to the conservation of these unique resources, monitoring carefully changes in biological diversity that could indicate possible threats to stromatolite systems.

Most significantly, Dr Burns has demonstrated the importance of an integrated approach to the study of a functionally diverse biological system. The long-term goal is to build on this research and extend these kinds of functional complexity studies to other evolutionally significant environments.

Professional Experience

  • 2008-current: Senior Lecturer, School of BABS
  • 2006-2010 Australian Research Fellow, School of BABS
  • 2005: Lecturer, School of BABS
  • 2005: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellow, School of Life and Environmental Science, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Japan
  • 2002-2004: ARC Fellow: School of BABS, UNSW
  • 2000-2001: Alexander von Humboldt Fellow, Max von Pettenkofer Institute for Hygiene and Medical Microbiology, Ludwigs Maximilians University, Munich, Germany
  • 1999-2000: Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Microbiology and Immunology, UNSW
  • 1995-1999: Doctoral Student, School of Microbiology and Immunology, UNSW
  • 1992-1994: Research Assistant, School of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, UNSW

Honours & Awards

  • Young Scientist Award (European Helicobacter pylori Study Group; 1997,1998,1999, 2000)
  • Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship (2000)
  • ASM Research Trust Fellowship (2001)
  • Kanagawa Museum of Natural History Award (2003)
  • Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Invitation Fellowship (2004)
  • NSW Australian Society for Microbiology Members Review Award (2004)
  • Eureka Prize for Interdisciplinary Scientific Research (2005)
  • Australian Institute of Political Science Tall Poppy Award (2005)
  • Visiting appointment: Associate Professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan.

Select publications

  • Reinold M, Wong, HL, Macleod FI, Meltzer J, Thompson A, and Burns BP (2019). The Vulnerability of Microbial Ecosystems in A Changing Climate: Potential Impact in Shark Bay. Life 9, 71; doi:10.3390/life9030071.
  • Fisher A, Larkum A, Kühl M, Wong HL, Chen M, Burns BP (2019). Correlation of bio-optical properties with photosynthetic pigment and microorganism distribution in microbial mats from Hamelin Pool, Australia. FEMS Microbial Ecol 95, fiy219.
  • MacLeod F, Kindler GS, Wong HL, Ray Chen R, and Burns BP (2019). Asgard archaea: Diversity, function, and evolutionary implications in a range of microbiomesAIMS Microbiology 5, 48-61. doi: 10.3934/microbiol.2019.1.48.
  • Wong HL, White RA, Visscher PT, Charlesworth JC, Vazquez-Campos X, and Burns BP. (2018) Disentangling the drivers of functional complexity at the metagenomic level in Shark Bay microbial mat microbiomes. ISME J 12, 2619-2639. 
  • White RA III, Wong HL, Ruvindy R, Neilan BA and Burns BP (2018). Viral Communities of Shark Bay Modern Stromatolites. Frontiers of Microbiology 9,1223. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2018.01223.
  • Wong HL, Visscher P.T, White RA, Smith D-L, Patterson M, and Burns BP. (2017) Dynamics of archaea at fine spatial scales in Shark Bay mat microbiomes. Sci Rep, 7, Article number 46160; doi: 10.1038/srep46160.
  • Ruvindy R, White RA, Neilan BA, and Burns BP. (2016) Unravelling core microbial metabolisms in the hypersaline microbialites of Shark Bay using high-throughput metagenomics. ISME J 10, 183-196. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2015.87.
  • Wong HL, Ahmed-Cox A, and Burns BP. (2016) Molecular ecology of hypersaline microbial mats: current insights and new directions. Microorganisms 4, 6 (doi:10.3390/microorganisms4010006).
  • Blaber EA Finkelstein H, Dvorochkin N, Sato KY, Yousuf R, Burns BP, Globus RK, and Almeida EAC. (2015) Microgravity Reduces the Differentiation and Regenerative Potential of Embryonic Stem Cells. Stem Cells Dev 24, 2605-2621.
  • Wong HL, Smith D-L, Visscher P.T, and Burns BP. (2015) Niche differentiation of bacterial communities at a millimeter scale in Shark Bay microbial mats. Sci Rep 5, doi: 10.1038/srep15607.

For more information, visit the Burns Lab website.