Ag Research Spotlight:
“The UN predicts that by 2050 we'll need to double food production to meet the needs of 9.5 billion people. It's going to take new technologies, and we have to make safe products.” –Paul Ebner, Associate Professor of Animal Sciences
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for January 2013 underscores the theme, “Enhancing food and health.”
Paul Ebner’s path to agriculture was, in a word, unconventional. He grew up in a Detroit suburb and studied political science at Kalamazoo College. Spending his junior year in Tokyo laid the groundwork for his joining the Peace Corps after graduation. His assignment took him to Paraguay, he worked in livestock production. “I realized this was something that I really loved,” he says, and chose graduate study in animal sciences: “I focused on production at first, then went into microbiology and food safety.” He earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Tennessee and completed an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at Louisiana State University. Ebner joined the Purdue faculty six years ago.
Food poisoning usually results from some sort of bacteria—Salmonella and E. coli are better-known ones—getting on a food product, Ebner explains. The bacteria grow in animals but usually do not cause problems for them. Ebner explores technologies that limit the number of bacteria in the animals before they enter a food processing facility. Specifically he studies bacteriophages, microscopic predators that target and destroy the bacteria. Adding bacteriophages to the animals’ food decreases the likelihood of pathogenic bacteria ending up in the final food product. Ebner’s research could reduce the 75 million cases of food-borne illness that the CDC estimates occur each year in the United States.
Ebner encourages his students to seize academic options that Purdue offers overseas – and does so himself. He recently returned from teaching a class at China’s Zhejiang University; three Zhejiang alumni are graduate students working in his lab. He also accompanies a group of undergraduates each year on a service-learning course in Romania.
EDUCATING THE PUBLIC
Ebner takes seriously the land-grant university’s commitment to serving the public. “We come up with a lot of technologies that are used in the food industry and production. Consumers rightfully have questions about these technologies, and I want to take any opportunities I have to explain them,” he says. As a member of Purdue’s Food Animal Education Network, he answers consumers’ questions in nontechnical terms to help them make informed decisions.
“Research takes a long time,” Ebner says. “When you tell the story, it sounds exciting because you’re telling the results. But there’s always a lot of work at the lab bench before you do anything in an animal. [That] is the very last step.”