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Pioneers of Discovery: Investigator taps into artistic side to reveal cells’ secrets

May. 29, 2014, 9:34 AM

Dylan Burnette, Ph.D., uses high-resolution imaging to examine the cellular structures that give shape to cells and allow them to move. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Dylan Burnette, Ph.D., points to one of the many striking photographs on his office walls. It’s a picture of a cell — a microscopic image showing yellow squiggles, bright purple lines and a turquoise oval on a black background, and it looks like abstract art.

“I see beauty in almost every experiment that I do,” says Burnette, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty in February as an assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. “There’s beauty in the structure, the organization, the molecular dynamics … cells are works of art; we just don’t fully understand them.”

Burnette uses high-resolution and super-resolution imaging to probe the cellular structures that give cells shape and allow them to move.

“We’re trying to figure out how a cell shapes itself to a surface,” he says. In our bodies, he explains, a single metastatic cancer cell moves on and through multiple surfaces: linear 1-dimensional fibers, flat 2-dimensional sheets and complex 3-dimensional matrix.

Burnette’s group is creating models of the different surfaces that are found in vivo to understand the molecular mechanisms that cells use to shape themselves to those surfaces. The findings could point to new targets for blocking cancer cell metastasis.

Burnette traces his scientific career to his undergraduate years at the University of Georgia. He was cruising along a pre-med track until a summer job in a laboratory prompted him to take a course in cell biology, where he “fell in love with microtubules,” he says with a laugh.

Dylan Burnette, Ph.D., uses high-resolution imaging to explore the cellular structures that give cells shape. In this image, a cell crawls toward the bottom right side. The actin filament cytoskeletal structures in the cell have been rainbow color-coded to show their relative heights, from the bottom (red) to the top of the cell (purple).

Microtubules are parts of the cytoskeleton — the cellular scaffold that gives cells shape and plays important roles in cell movement, intracellular transport and cell division.

Burnette’s professor, Jacek Gaertig, Ph.D., was drawing microtubules like stacks of Legos and showing how the tubes grow and shrink at their tips.

“In my undergraduate mind, microtubules were like a toy, and I started thinking about all the things you could do with this toy.”

He joined Gaertig’s lab, where he used biochemistry tools to study alterations to tubulin — the Lego “bricks” that make up microtubules.

After only a month in the lab, Burnette decided he would pursue a research career.

Burnette moved to Yale University for graduate school, where he worked with Paul Forscher, Ph.D., studying the interaction between cytoskeletal actin filaments and microtubules in living cells. His studies demonstrated how actin filaments guide microtubules in neuronal growth cones, a model for nerve regeneration.

In his postdoctoral training with Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Ph.D., at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Burnette focused on the role of the motor protein myosin II in building contractile networks that control cell shape and movement. He is continuing to explore these networks in his current studies.

“I’m fortunate to have had three mentors who allowed me to be creative and go after projects that didn’t always have an obvious outcome,” Burnette says. “They gave me lots of flexibility.”

Burnette finds special appeal in imaging as a research tool.

“With imaging, even if your hypothesis turns out not to be right, the cell often tells you little secrets,” he says. “The cell says, ‘yeah, yeah, your hypothesis wasn’t correct, but look at this, I’m pretty cool over here.’”

Burnette lives in Brentwood with his wife, genetic counselor Gillian Hooker, Ph.D., and their 3-year-old son and 9-month-old daughter.

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