USDA's alchemy with a moo


BELTSVILLE - With the largest concentration of agriculture scientists in the world, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center here is involved in a wide variety of programs designed to benefit farmers and make life better for average citizens.

"We're different than most universities involved in research," said Ronald F. Korcak, associate director of the center. "Our base funding is $120 million a year, and the money is there every year. If I were a university researcher, I would have to get a grant every year."

The repeat financing, he said, "gives us stability and it allows us get involved in high-risk, long-term research, like plant genetics, where we seek to identify genes that make plants insect-resistant or drought-resistant. It's the kind of work you can't do overnight."

The center is well known for developing the "Beltsville turkey," a faster-growing, healthier bird with more white meat. Nearly every turkey sold in the nation today has the Beltsville bird in its pedigree.

Beltsville researchers also are involved in cancer prevention, the control of Lyme disease, improving the nutritional value of food and making Maryland oysters safer to eat.

The center's scientists also have cloned Annie, a brown Jersey dairy cow. Korcak declined to talk in detail about the low-profile project. But he said the goal of such research is to eliminate diseases such as mastitis that make a cow's milk unfit for human consumption.

Thomas Fretz, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the center has enhanced the university's ability to do research. It also has helped lure companies to the area, making Baltimore-Washington one of the top biotech regions of the country.

Korcak said the center is working with 30 U.S. companies, including five in Maryland. (Confidential cooperative research and development agreements do not allow him to identify the companies.)

"They are paying for part of the research, and they have the right of first refusal of any technology coming from the research," he said.

The center has 330 full-time scientists and typically 50 to 100 visiting scientists or postdoctoral students from around the world on the campus, Korcak said.

With total employment of nearly 1,900, it has more workers in Maryland than either of two major employers in the state, General Motors and Black & Decker. Beltsville's payroll is $83 million a year, and the center is credited with contributing $373 million a year to the region's economy.

Among other things, Korcak said, the money pays for research on generating electricity from cow manure.

The simplified explanation is that moisture is pressed out of the manure and, in the process, methane gas is captured and used to fuel a micro turbine to generate electricity.

The electricity is used to light a dairy barn. Korcak said the goal is to develop a cost-effective system that dairy farmers can use to generate their own electricity and that lets them sell excess capacity to utilities.

"We're not there yet," he said.

Researchers are also testing changes in what cows are fed in a search for ways to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus - major contributors to the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay - in their manure.

Korcak listed a handful of current projects that indicate the range of the center's research:

Working with the National Institutes of Health, scientists are seeking to determine the relationship between lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, and prostate cancer. Preliminary research indicates that eating tomato sauce can reduce a man's chances of developing the cancer.

Developing a deer feeder designed to help control the deer-tick population. While eating from the feeder, a deer rubs against a roller containing an insecticide that kills ticks gathered around its neck. Early studies indicate a 60 percent reduction in the number of deer ticks that could carry Lyme disease.

Turning chicken feathers into valuable products. Walter Schmidt, a staff scientist, has used the feathers to make a highly absorbent, paperlike product that could be used in disposable diapers or in industrial filters to remove metals from oil or other fluids. "Someday, the feathers may very well be worth more than the chickens," Korcak said. "They could be a new profit center [for Maryland's big poultry industry].

Studying how to kill or reduce the population of the parasite Cryptosporidium, which has been found in oysters in Maryland rivers. Eating oysters containing the parasite can cause vomiting and severe diarrhea.

"These are just a few areas of our research," said Korcak. "We do a lot more. We're like a small city, with over 400 buildings, including 25 major structures."

The 92-year-old complex is one of eight USDA research centers around the country.

The center's projects have included including extending the shelf-life of butter, developing pest- and disease-resistant roses and strawberries, and developing a group of pesticides to protect World War II soldiers.

It has developed a number of vaccines, including those to prevent hog cholera and coccidiosis in chickens; and drugs to destroy worm parasites in horses, swine, goats. The research has saved farmers billions of dollars.

In recent years research has shifted to biotechnology, including seeking a method that enables farmers to select the geneder of their animals' offspring.

The diversity of the center's research is the reason for its large staff of scientists. "We're not the largest as measured in the number of people," Korcak said, "but we're the largest in the concentration of scientists. That makes us the government's flagship agriculture research center."

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