Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
Tim Johnson spends two days a week in the central Minnesota city of Willmar, working in a research laboratory and driving around the region speaking to growers and industry representatives of Minnesota’s vibrant turkey industry. He enjoys the intersection of research and real life while learning from the challenges of an industry that has suffered from viral outbreaks affecting their products. "Everything that happens in animals has a direct impact on humans," said Johnson. "One of the strongest aspects of the University of Minnesota is our 'One Health' concept, an ideal in which we embrace the reality that humans and animals are intertwined and that studying the condition of animals is very relevant to the human condition."
The associate professor is often on the move, mainly doing research but also teaching two courses. In Willmar he serves as Director of Research and Development in the University's Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center. The laboratory's work on detecting avian flu virus that killed nine million poults on more than 100 farms in the spring of 2015 drew the attention of Minnesota Public Radio and other news outlets. Avian flu isn't the only problem affecting poultry flocks. Another burning national issue is the battle against use of antibiotics in poultry production. Antimicrobial drugs currently can be used both for growth promotion and as a preventative measure to keep diseases from destroying birds, Johnson said. The use of antibiotics in poultry can lead to bacterial resistance. When a person gets sick from eating meat containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria-- often caused by poor cooking -- the result is that they cannot be treated with certain antibiotics because the drugs may not be effective at doses that don’t produce side effects. The World Health Organization has raised the alarm over antibiotic resistance and has suggested as a policy that countries "terminate or rapidly phase out antimicrobials for growth promotion if they are used for human treatment."
At least two million Americans suffer from antibiotic-resistant infections every year and 23,000 die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Some regions are taking action. The European Union prohibits antibiotics for growth promotion and is considering other legislation to control antibiotics. Chipotle, Panera Bread, McDonald's and other restaurant chains have eliminated antibiotics in their supply chains or have begun that process. Tyson Chicken has set a goal of getting rid of them by 2017. The poultry industry, in particular, has gotten the message and is moving aggressively on the road to the reduction and removal of antibiotics from feed stock. The problem, said Johnson, is finding replacements for antibiotics that both protect birds fro disease and sustain their performance at desired levels. One project he participates in looks at how probiotics -- beneficial microbes -- could serve as a replacement for antibiotics. Another looks at how to better predict and control poultry respiratory illnesses without relying on antibiotics.
Transforming poultry production in the United States is a daunting task. "In theory, free-ranging and grass fed meats that are antibiotic free sounds nice," Johnson said. "The problem you run into is that a sustainable and cost effective food supply based on this system is difficult or impossible." What Johnson likes about working at the University is the collaborative opportunities he has with people working in the turkey industry. On the one hand he experiences the excitement of laboratory-based research, while on the other he's out and about speaking to folks in the field. "I can perform the cutting edge research -- the things the University is known for -- at the same time I'm making a connection directly with poultry farmers.
"I spend a lot of time driving out to farms and to companies seeking to produce pharmaceuticals for animals, and all of these have a real benefit to my research. What I love about my job is that I don't have to sit in the office and the lab all day in the 'Ivory Tower.' The University has given me the freedom to be in the lab and to get out and meet people." Johnson is no stranger to the rural life he sees in Willmar. He grew up in the tiny central Minnesota town of Kimball, with a population a few hundred people — larger than one of the classes he teaches. His father ran a concrete company while his mother was a homemaker. His sister is a nurse in the Twin Cities.
As a pre-medical student at North Dakota State University, he stumbled into a microbiology class, fell in love with the topic and found his calling. After earning a bachelor's of science in microbiology, Johnson stayed in Fargo for a Ph.D. in Molecular Pathogenesis in Department of Veterinary and Microbiological Sciences, but finished his studies at Iowa State University, where his advisor had taken a position. He taught for a couple of years at Des Moines Area Community College while also doing postdoctoral research at Iowa State, before joining the UMN faculty in 2007. During his time at the university, the 38-year-old has tipped his skills into many areas, from antibiotic resistance research to efforts aimed at encouraging outstate students to stay in MN and attend UMN. "I've seen too many talented students in Minnesota ultimately leave for higher degrees at other universities," he said. "In some small way I am hoping to use the connection with rural Minnesota through Willmar to influence students to consider staying in Minnesota and doing things here."
Johnson lives with his wife and two children in Richmond, half way between Minneapolis and Willmar. His commute isn't unreasonable, another attraction for staying in Minnesota -- you can live an urban/rural lifestyle much easier than in other large metropolitan areas. Despite a career in science and a great background in antibiotic resistance research, Johnson reveals he's like any other parent when it comes to sick kids. "You may be a scientist but you have to wear both of those hats -- as a scientist and a parent," he said. "You know that if the kids get a viral infection, antibiotics won't work but you still have the same desire to help your children, right? I play with that issue like everyone. There's always a battle there to do the right thing."
by Frank Jossi