Dr. Dunham Provides Benchmark Work on Catfish Hybridization

By: Charles Martin – The Catfish Journal

Auburn University fisheries professor Rex Dunham, true to his school’s land-grant mission, conducts research with the goal of helping catfish farmers and local communities sustain their way of life.

The goal is to serve the entire catfish farming industry and local communities,” said Dunham, who recently won Auburn’s Creative Research and Scholarship Award. “In addition to helping the farms in rural west Alabama, research helps the processing plants, which employ a lot of people, and there is an indirect impact on the local businesses. These includetractor parts suppliers, restaurants, any type of local shop. Hopefully, the impact of that research helps make that way of life sustainable.”

A primary aspect of Dunham’s career has been the hybridization of channel and blue catfish, considered a possible savior of the U.S. catfish aquaculture industry. Farm-raised catfish is the largest aquaculture industry in the country and has been a significant part of the economy of the Southeast for 30 years. But this industry faces high feed prices and marketing pressure from imported fish.

“The hybrid catfish, which has been Dr. Dunham’s signature area of work, has the potential to improve production efficiency to the point where U.S. farmers can continue to compete in today’s marketplace,” said Craig Tucker, director of the National Warm water Aquaculture Center and USDA Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, in nominating Dunham for the Auburn research award. “He has been directly or indirectly responsible for most of the technologies now used to produce this fish.”

Dunham says it is now feasible to produce Commercial quantities of hybrids, which have better growth, survival, disease resistance, feed conversion and tolerance of poor water quality – all leading to an inlproved harvest. His research is being applied to the cattlsh industry though Auburn’s Office of Technology Transfer, which is working with the company, Aetos, to provide hybrid fingerlings to catfish farmers.

“It is very gratifying that we finally reached this point,” he said. “With the tough economic times globally, this can greatly impact the catfish industry. The industry now has the technology to make hybrids.”

Dunham, a native of Peoria, ill., earned his bacbelor’s degree from the University of illinois in 1978. He then went to Auburn University in Alabama to work on his master’s degree, which he earned in 1979 followed by Ph.D. in 1981. He is recognized as a world leader in his field and has been awarded $14 million for research through 77 federal, state and University grmts during his time at Auburn. He has published 223 scientific articles, chapters and proceedings papers during his career.

He says a goal-oriented approach to research is vital to obtaining results that will impact specific fields and industries. “Some scientists change directions to follow the research money,” Dunham said. “If a goal or objective is worthwhile, then you should stay the coW’se, even if it is not easily fundable.”

Dunham’s major research achievements include:
- First researcher to demonstrate that selection works for the genetic improvement of channel catfish;
- First release of genetically improved fish in the United State. In total, responsible for four releases of genetically improved catfish;
- His research has led to the formation of the first four commercial genetics and breeding companies in the catfish industry; and
- First to produce a transgenic fish in the United States, and the fourth worldwide.

“He has a history of successful collaboration with university and government scientists, as well bayer cipro as farmers and technicians in the private sector,” Tucker said. “He gives freely of his time to work with other scientists, an important contribution that does not show up on his resume.”

Dunham sees the next major impact coming from transgenic sterilization, which involves the development of a genetic system that puts catfish reproduction control in the hands of the laboratoy culturist.

“We would genetically turn on or off a fish’s ability to reproduce,” Dunham said. “This would virtually eliminate all environmental impact that might occur if farm or laboratory fish were accidentally released into waterways. They would not reproduce in a natural environment, so they would not threaten native fish.”

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