"Take Five" with Developmental Biologist William Browne

William Browne and his colleagues prepare to dive. Browne is an avid diver, and it played a big role in getting him interested in marine biodiversity. Credit: Casey Dunn

"Take Five" is an occasional feature in which we pose five questions to an MBL community member about their career, dreams, and passions. Here we profile William E. Browne of the University of Miami, a member of the MBL Embryology course faculty.

William Browne is fascinated by the relationship between organisms and their genetics, in particular when and where genes are turned on and off throughout an organism’s development. He began his academic career at the University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD under then-biology professor and current MBL Director Nipam Patel.

From there, he worked as a postdoctoral scientist and researcher at the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory before becoming a professor at the University of Miami. His work focuses on the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi, also known as the warty comb jelly, which he is developing as a model organism.

Browne first came to the MBL in 2010 as a teaching assistant for the arthropod module of the Embryology course. He joined the course faculty in 2017 and for several years taught the ctenophore module. Browne returned in 2022 and 2023 as a course faculty member.

William Browne headshot
William Browne is a biologist from the University of Miami and a regular instructor in MBL's Embryology course. Credit: Patricia Murata

How did you decide to become a scientist?

For me, that was a very, very early decision. I was 6 or 7 when I started acting like a scientist. I would go around my neighborhood in Chicago and collect insects -- that was my thing at the time, mostly butterflies and moths -- and try to identify them. My mother quickly figured out I was interested and took my sister and I out to explore and catch bugs for hours. I had had a couple of school trips to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. They have huge trays of butterflies with all of this variation in color, shape and size, and I was really interested in seeing some of that diversity on my block. I learned on my own how to pin and mount them in cases, and identify them as much as was possible for an 8-year-old. 

But I didn't have that many role models, so I ended up joining the Marine Corps. But my love of animals didn't go away. I did a lot of scuba diving, particularly on the coral reefs around Okinawa. That's where I got really interested in diversity in marine organisms. Then I had a training accident, and I ended up leaving the Marine Corps much earlier than planned. 

So I was back in Chicago, trying to figure out what to do next, when I was introduced to a curator in the fish department at The Field Museum. When I went to visit him, he pulled out a skull from a fish called a pacu. He asked me what it was, and I knew. I think that really surprised him, so he's like, “Oh, well, do you want to volunteer in the fish department?” And that was the beginning. Soon, I became an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and I loved it there, so I stayed and joined the Molecular Genetics/Cell Biology program for graduate school.

William Browne scuba diving
William Browne scuba diving. He began diving while in the military and quickly fell in love with marine biodiversity. Credit: Wyatt Patry

What is the central question that most inspires you to come into the lab every day?

Given that you have a relatively static DNA blueprint available, how are different cell types specified in the context of a multicellular organism? From a genome, how do you get these dramatically different cell types doing very, very different things, maybe in the same place or different places at different times?

You’re given a magic wand that allows you to perform any experiment. What experiment are you doing?

I have to think about that one.

I think if I could do any experiment, right now, I would tag every transcription factor, every protein involved in turning genes on and off, in the Mnemiopsis (comb jelly) genome. Then, I would use those tags to follow those transcription factors’ expression through time and space during embryogenesis to see where and when each gene is expressed. I would also do single-cell sequencing for each cell in Mnemiopsis to see exactly how genes are being expressed as different cell lineages are specified. That would take me a lifetime, plus two or three. But that’s a multi-layered experiment I would love to do if I could.

Mnemiopsis glowing on a black background
Ctenophores like this Mnemiopsis are the main subject of Browne's work. His research focuses on their development. Credit: William Browne

If you could invite three scientists in your field, living or deceased, to a dinner party, who would you choose?

Yeah, see, I can’t really get away from my mentors! I would choose Mark Martindale, Nipam Patel, and Cassandra Extravour. I think that would be a very lively dinner conversation.

Mark Martindale introduced me to, number one, ctenophores, and the idea that if you want to really understand development, you need to get in there and experimentally work with your embryo. He’s very much an experimentalist. Nipam has, for me, very cogent thoughts about melding developmental biology and evolution that are relevant to these ideas of how you get very differently specified cell types in a single multicellular organism. And part of the answer is to view processes in this evolutionary context. Cassandra is sort of in the middle of those two. So I suppose the thing that connects all three is this abiding interest in parsing development in the context of evolutionary processes that are working on every lineage independently.

What impact has the MBL had on your career and your life?

In an overarching sense, it broadened my perspectives. Meeting folks that are doing things that are both close to what you're doing and very far from what you're doing, bringing people in from distant locations. Everyone's there sharing information, and most importantly, ideas and perspectives that you might want to follow up on. So, big impact. Huge impact.