In May 1994, Dr. Peter B. Johnsen became the twelfth Director of the USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research here in Peoria. Raised in Florida, he received a liberal arts undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Wisconsin. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in the area of neurobiology and began a research and teaching career.
While teaching in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Biology and its College of Veterinary Medicine, he conducted research at the Monell Chemical Senses Center on the relationship of food chemicals and their stimulation of neural receptors and how they control food intake. He has been a visiting scientist at the University of Bonn in Germany and was a recipient of an Olin Fellowship to work at the University of Oslo in Norway.
In 1986 the USDA Agricultural Research Service recruited him to lead a research team on food flavor quality at its Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. As research leader he led a team of scientists developing ways to improve the flavor quality of beef, catfish, peanuts and rice. He and his team were recognized for their work with numerous awards from industry and commodity groups.
Johnsen is married to Polly Stewart Johnsen and they have two sons, Andrew, 11, and Eric, 9. He is involved in their scouting and sporting activities while trying to maintain a running and cycling program. Active in the Peoria Federal Executive Association, he is currently chair of the Combined Federal Campaign Board that coordinates charitable giving among federal employees in a way similar to the United Way.
What step did you take over the years that led you to become the director of the Ag-Lab?
During my university years, I did a lot of consulting, including with the USDA. Based on my scientific expertise and my background in working with food and beverage companies, I had something unique to offer the Agricultural Research Service. The offer from USDA came at a good time for my wife and I so we moved to New Orleans.
While in New Orleans, I was fortunate to have several mentors who helped me get a variety of management and political experiences in Washington D.C. and other locations to round out my scientific background. When the directorship of NCAUR became open here in Peoria, I had the right mix of scientific and management experiences to be selected for the job.
The USDA has quite a history that includes a number of well-known significant discoveries made here. Can you share the details of a few of those?
In preparation for teaching a class at Bradley, I recently had the opportunity to learn more about the incredible history and impact of the lab. Beginning with the successful development of penicillin production during the war years, the lab went on to invent Dextran, a blood extender, in response to military and civil defense needs. These were made available to the general public and have saved countless lives around the world.
Peoria can legitimately lay claim to the success of the soybean industry. Our scientists developed the processing methods to produce high quality, food-grade oil and isolated soy protein. When the lad began its work, soybeans were used mainly for animal feed but today they are the nation’s second most valuable crop and its number one edible oil. Soybean oil and protein have become some of the most versatile ingredients for food and industrial products as a result of our research efforts.
Another invention is xanthan gum, found in many foods as a thickening agent. Look at most salad dressing labels and you will see it listed as one of the ingredients. Another use of xanthan gum is in drilling muds for the oil and gas industry.
Super Slurper is another of our well-known inventions. Absorbing up to 2,000 times its weight of water, this starch co=polymer material can be found in diapers, fuel filters, surgical dressings, seed coatings and even children’s toys.
More recent inventions include Oatrim and Fluffy Cellulose, which are widely used food ingredients. Oatrim reduces cholesterol while acting as a fat replacer and Fluffy Cellulose is used to add dietary fiber to many baked goods and breakfast cereals.
What has been the impact/benefits of some of the lab’s discoveries?
The impact of the lab on our daily lives is almost beyond comprehension. The penicillin work started the whole antibiotic industry worldwide – saving millions of lives. Xanthan gum as a food ingredient has sales exceeding $30 million per years while its application in gas and oil production to extend the productive life of wells exceeds $100 million per year. The super-absorbent industry resulting from our basic invention of Super Slurper now has sales exceeding $1 billion annually.
There are many other commercial products and processes developed at the lab but it’s our contributions to basic science and technology that are perhaps even more important. Our research has been key to the commercial success of modern U.S. agriculture. We played a vital role in developing the new ways to handle hybrid varieties of corn harvested by the new picker-sheller combine introduced in the 1950s. Lab scientists developed the corn-soya-milk product used in the Food-for-Peace program, fighting hunger around the world while providing our farmers additional markets for their commodities.
Is your lab the only one of its kind – or part of a chain of federal labs?
The Peoria lab is one of four hundred authorized by Congress in 1938 and opened in 1940. The mission of these labs was to develop new products made from agricultural commodities to provide market-driven assistance to America’s farmers.
The Eastern Laboratory is location in Philadelphia, the Southern Laboratory in New Orleans, and the Western Laboratory in Albany, California. These sister labs also have had significant influence on our daily lives.
Frozen food technology came from the Western Lab, instant potatoes and Pringles came from Philadelphia and the Southern Regional Laboratory developed frozen concentrated orange juice, permanent press cotton and flame retardant fabrics. Each one of these inventions has more than justified for all four of these utilization labs.
What is the mission of the Peoria lab today?
Now known as the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR), the Peoria laboratory is the largest of the four laboratories with a base funding of $23 million.
NCAUR continues to invent new uses of agricultural commodities for industrial and food products, develops new technology to improve environmental quality, and provides technical support to federal regulatory and action agencies.
Organized into ten research units, the center maintains a mixed portfolio of interdisciplinary science concerning the fundamental to applied research continuum.
Today microorganisms and/or their enzymes are being developed to transform raw agricultural materials (starch, proteins, and oils) to commercially valuable products such as food additives, fuels, insect and weed controls, cosmetics, and industrial lubricants.
Processing technologies like extrusion, jet cooking, high pressure reactions, and supercritical extraction are being used to make new value-added products such as biodegradable plastics, edible films, printing inks, novel flavors, and pigments.
Modern biotechnology tools are being used by our scientists to produce new products for many industrial uses and improved human nutrition. The techniques are also being used to control fungi which decrease crop yields, pose potential health hazards, and limit export opportunities for American crops in world trade.
Does it seem unusual to you that a facility like this is located in a middle-sized Midwestern city? Doesn’t it seem better suited to a Chicago or New York?
Actually, Peoria was very carefully chosen in 1938. One of the original criteria for site selection required that it should be associated within an industrial community rather than an academic research environment.
True to the original ideal, we have continued to work on real-world problems rather than drifting off into “Ivory Tower” research. We have a long and successful history of working with the local fermentation industry, corn and soybean processors, Caterpillar, and many others.
The other criterion was the need for a high quality of life for a professional scientific staff. Today, as when our first scientists arrived in 1940, Peoria does provide a quality of life extremely attractive to our staff. This is one reason we are able to recruit and retain a highly talented staff at NCAUR.
Who do you have working for you? What’s their training and background?
We have approximately 300 people working at the lab. About 100 are Ph.D. level research scientists and postdocs in the fields of chemistry, chemical engineering, microbiology, genetics, plant physiology and other disciplines. One of our most important assets is our technical support staff of approximately 150. These men and women typically have a bachelor’s or master’s degree and play a very important role in the day-to-day research experiments. Each is a technical specialist and contributes to the overall success of our programs.
Since 1982, the operations and maintenance of our 60-year-old facility has been in the hands of a private contractor. While the specific contractor has changes over the years, many of the same highly talented trades-people have continued to keep us operational through their dedication, skill and knowledge of our facility. We have government and private employees working side by side to achieve our mission.
Is there a lure for some of your people to jump ship and work for a private corporation?
Our scientific team is internationally recognized and is actively courted by the private sector. We lose a few every now and then but, by the same token, we are successful in recruiting experienced scientists from industry labs. Right now, I think we have a slight net gain over the private sector.
The Peoria lab provides one of the most attractive research environments in the world for our type of work. In reality, many scientists are less motivated by money and are more interested in the opportunity to work on exciting projects in well-supported labs. We also offer long-term stability in our research programs. In industry, projects tend to be focused on very short-term goals. For scientists who like to engage in longer-term research projects, we offer the ideal environment for discovery.
Tell us about some of the projects you’re working on now – and is there a possibility any of them could produce spectacular results?
Our projects often produce spectacular or newsworthy results. Most times, however, the results are more exciting to the scientific and technical communities because they provide the fundamental building blocks for technological and commercial advancement.
Nevertheless, our recent work on biodegradable plastics using starch, the discovery of a cholesterol-lowering oil from corn fiber and some new bio-control agents are of interest to the public and are expected to be successful in the marketplace relatively soon.
Another recent invention is FANTESK™, a unique composition of starch and oil creating the only known permanent emulsion of oil and water. This remarkable breakthrough technology has been licensed as a fat replacer in foods, part of adhesive systems in particle board and plywood, seed and seedling coatings, cosmetics and skin care products and for use in oil drilling muds. This invention is so significant that we have trademarked the name FANTESK™. It is one of two trademarks of USDA. The other is Smokey the Bear. We believe that this is a very exciting development for our lab.
What can we look forward to in the way of scientific discoveries in the next ten to twenty years?
In the next ten to twenty years I would expect to se a number of very exciting developments based on what we call new platform technologies using biotechnology and advanced processing technologies. Through molecular biology and genetic engineering we are developing microbes which will be able to ferment a wider variety of materials, produce valuable new chemicals and do it at cheaper costs.
We are also developing new processing technologies to modify, purify, or combine natural polymers into new industrial and consumer products. These technologies will be more environmentally friendly, but at the same time economically competitive.
All of our efforts are designed to provide economic opportunity to the American farmer, improve rural development and ensure that we have a healthy environment and general population.
Are there other things you’d like to pursue – but a discovery or solution is just too far off?
It is our strategy to maintain a mix of projects involving goals of near-term – one to five years – midterm – five to ten years – and long term – greater than ten years. It typically takes fifteen to twenty years from the time of basic discovery, through technology development, to commercial success. All of our projects must have some hope of commercial success or otherwise meet an identified national need.
Before undertaking any project we must determine whether or not it is appropriate for a public research institution. Some projects should be done by private industry or our colleagues in the university. Our philosophy is to develop partnerships with these groups to find solutions to important problems by leveraging our capabilities and resources while each institution plays its proper role.
How are research projects organized and developed?
Our research program is organized into ten management units involving 37 specific projects. National research problems are identified by both the Congress and by presidential initiative. These are typically responsive to the needs of the farmer and agricultural industries.
Each research project has a carefully developed scientific plan including milestones for monitoring success and fiscal accountability. Before a project is initiated both the scientific community as well as the industry that will actively use the knowledge developed by our scientists review it for scientific merit.
Periodic reviews are used to ensure that the original objectives are still important and that satisfactory progress is being made. Projects can be terminated and their resources redirected to new higher priority problems if necessary.
Congress passed a law a few years ago that helped the lab profit financially from some of its discoveries. Can you explain the background of that – why was such a law needed and what does it mean now for the lab?
The world of science and technology has changed significantly with the rising importance of intellectual property. Patents have completely changed the way government R&D operates and how technology is adopted by the private sector. In 1980 and 1986 Congress passed laws which allowed us to grant exclusive patent licenses and to initiate cooperative R&D projects with the private sector.
The idea behind this legislation was to speed the commercialization of government inventions. The Peoria lab has always been a successful player in technology transfer and we continue to be leaders in obtaining patents on inventions and licensing them for commercial applications. We have one of the most experienced staffs in all of government in the process of writing and licensing patents. In fact, NCAUR is the designated lead technology transfer facility for USDA.
One of the provisions of the technology transfer laws is that our scientists can receive a portion or the royalties generated by the patent licenses. For some of our scientists that can exceed their base salary. This is one of the significant inducements to working at the lab.
However, as a publicly funded research institution, our principle goal is to produce and implement technology which benefits the American public, not to make a lot of money.
What’s the status of funding for your lab? (As we recall there was a time not too long ago when the lab was on the financial chopping block on a fairly regular basis.)
In recent years the funding outlook for the lab has been very strong. Our accomplishments have been well recognized, we have tailored our projects to meet current high priority problems and have worked harder to keep policy makers informed of our activities. We operate with a great advantage because of the interest of Congressman Ray LaHood. He is very knowledgeable about our programs and, with both his local and Washington D.C. staffs, he has been a significant force in keeping our funding base and ensuring that needed renovations are being funded.
I can’t overemphasize how important it is to have someone who knows the program, believes in the capabilities of the lab and keeps his colleagues in Congress informed of the importance of the Peoria lab to the nation.
Your building has existed for many years now. Is the building itself in good shape? How is it equipped?
Our facility is 60 years old. The fact that it functions as well as it does is a testament to our operations staff, but the simple fact is that many of its systems such as electrical, water, heating, and cooling are just worn out. With the support of USDA and Congressman LaHood we have begun a major facilities renovation preparing the building for another 50 years.
The estimated cost to rebuild the entire facility over the next decade is $72 million. This is a big number when you consider is cost less than $1 million to build the center in 1939. However, economic analyses demonstrate that the return on investment to the public is worth every penny.
While the infrastructure of the center is on its last legs, we do have one of the best-equipped research facilities in the world.
What is happening with the renovation of the lab?
Last fall we began a three-phase renovation of our north wing where our pilot plant operates. This is anticipated to take almost four years and will cost approximately $20 million. The heart of the facility will be four large rooms where new processing technologies can be developed and demonstrated to our commercial partners.
Surrounding these rooms will be specialized preparation labs along with testing and evaluation facilities. Congressman LaHood has been instrumental in securing the necessary funds for this needed project. He has also worked hard to have language included in the new Farm Bill which will allow us more flexibility working with our private sector partners. We hope this will lead to the development of new businesses located here.
Some folks think the USDA lab is one of our best-kept secrets. Why don’t you get more publicity?
It is true, NCAUR is considered one of the best-kept secrets in the federal government. It’s one of the reasons that the public has a hard time believing that something so creative and important can come from a government laboratory. A less cynical reality is that we have never been allowed to put our “brand,” so to speak, on any of our inventions.
Imagine if every can of soft drink containing high fructose corn sweetener, every bottle of salad dressing containing xanthan gum, penicillin and other antibiotics, every product containing soy oil or protein had a label indicating that it came from NCAUR research in Peoria. If that were possible we wouldn’t be a secret. However, absent that opportunity, we will try to get the word out to as many different people as possible.
How well known is the lab in scientific circles and in foreign countries?
The scientific community considers our laboratory one of the premier research institutions in the world. In some ways Peoria and the lab are better known overseas than in this country. Our lab is almost a required stop for foreign scientists visiting the U.S.
Even through the progression of official names for the facility over the years, the “Peoria lab” remains well known and respected throughout Europe and Asia. In fact, many distinguished investigators have spent time in Peoria as visiting scientists. At Christmas time the lab receives many cards from scientists around the world fondly recalling the time they spent in both the lab and Peoria.
As part of the USDA, do you focus exclusively on ag-related projects?
We have traditionally tried to keep out focus on ag-related problems. However, when it is appropriate, we do move into other areas. The new invention that I mention previously, FANTESK™, also has numerous medical applications. We have established a working relationship with the University of Illinois Medical School here in Peoria to develop the material as a drug delivery system.
We are also testing the invention with a private company for skin wound and burn dressing applications. While we will pursue these opportunities with partner institutions, we are still the Ag lab with a responsibility to agriculture.
Do you get a chance to be a scientist – or is most of your time devoted to being an administrator?
I still publish a few research papers each year in collaboration with various scientist around the country but my days as a laboratory scientist are past. Technology just moves too fast to be a part-time scientist.
My responsibilities are to see that our scientists have the resources and clear direction to solve national research problems.
I am much more involved in coordinating the operations of the center, providing strategic vision to our activities and supporting our research leaders. These are the individuals who actually guide the scientific program of the center. Each of them is a distinguished scientist still active in the lab.
When you consider all the exciting things happening at the Lab, I think it is easy to see why I get up every day and hurry to work to see what amazing new discovery has come from the creative people here in Peoria.
I’m sure I have one of the best jobs in the world. IBI