Jordan Nehls BS’17 cooks up a lot of hamburgers and chicken breasts — but it’s not the sort of fare she can serve to her family and friends.
Before the meat goes in the oven, Nehls, a master’s student in animal sciences, inoculates each raw patty or breast with eight different strains of Salmonella. Next, she runs them through an impingement oven, an industrial appliance that meat processors use to prepare precooked frozen items, such as chicken nuggets and wings and hamburger patties.
“Your product goes through the impingement oven on a conveyor belt, and, as it goes along, there are jets that [blast] very hot air from above and below the product,” explains Nehls. “That decreases your cooking time significantly and adds desirable quality attributes, such as color, texture, and taste.”
When her samples come out the other side, Nehls breaks up each item in a sterile sample bag containing buffer solution. Later, she counts how many pathogens survived the journey. Her work is part of an ongoing research effort, launched when Wisconsin meat processing companies reached out to UW–Madison in 2017 to help develop and assess impingement oven updates needed to meet new food safety guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This isn’t the kind of work you can do in an ordinary laboratory space. It calls for commercial meat processing equipment and microbiology laboratory capabilities that can handle human foodborne pathogens.
Fortunately for Nehls, that isn’t a problem. She does her work in the Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) microbiology facility inside the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery building on the UW–Madison campus. The building, which opened in summer 2020, is the new home of the Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery (MSABD) program, a group of 10 faculty and staff in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences devoted to research, teaching, and outreach related to meat science and safety and beyond.
The BSL-2 facility — just one of several major technological advancements in the new MSABD building — is like a magical wonderland for meat-focused food safety researchers. It’s design and equipment mimic what’s found in government-inspected industry facilities; but instead, it’s a federally designated space where researchers can work with moderate-risk microbes, making it the place in the building to study “anything that can make somebody sick,” explains facility manager Cindy Austin. Austin worked as a meat microbiologist at Oscar Mayer for 16 years, so she’s well aware of how special it is to have a space of this kind.
“When I was at Oscar Mayer, if I had said I wanted to inoculate a product with Salmonella and then cook it and try to kill it, they would have looked at me like I was crazy, because you can’t do that in a commercial meat facility,” says Austin. “But here, in the BSL-2, I can do that. It’s a very specialized facility where we can do projects to help the industry that they can’t actually do
in their own facilities.”
In addition to the BSL-2 facility, the building boasts a USDA-inspected meat and poultry processing facility with sophisticated animal handling, harvesting, and processing capabilities. Together, these two installations form the core of the MSABD’s research, teaching, and outreach efforts. The USDA-inspected plant hosts all of the non-pathogen work, including a wide array of academic and industry- sponsored research, short courses for industry professionals, hands-on sessions for UW laboratory courses, and hands-on training for student employees. The building also has state-of-the-art classrooms, conference rooms, laboratory space, and offices, plus a retail store — Bucky’s Varsity Meats (see sidebar, Bucky’s Varsity Meats Educates and Delights).
For MSABD program director and professor Steve Ricke PhD’89, it’s hard to overstate the extent of the facility upgrade and how much it will help bolster the program’s overall efforts. This includes building cross-campus collaborations and partnerships with industry.
“I think the capabilities are just mind-blowing,” he says. “Probably the bigger challenge is just figuring out how to expand our programs to fit some of these capabilities. But I don’t think limitations are going to come into our conversations very much as we talk to industry. From a facility standpoint, there are no limits.”
In concert with major commitments to infrastructure, the program has made major investments in people over the past couple of years, including strategic hires for new positions. Today, six of 10 program personnel are new faces, including Ricke.
During this time of change, the program is also embracing a new focus area. In addition to its historical strengths of meat science and food safety, the program is expanding to include animal biologics — the search for value-added compounds and components from animal byproducts. It all adds up to an exciting time for the program, an era of renewal and growth.
“We’re beginning a new chapter,” Ricke says. “We can do anything from very basic research all the way to immediate application-type research. All of those capabilities are here, and the people are in place to pull it off. I think the sky’s the limit.”
Slow-cooked to Perfection
To those involved in making it happen, the MSABD building was a long time coming — and much needed. The program’s previous home, known as the Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory (MBL), was built in 1931, with additions completed in 1959 and 1971. The MBL became old and cramped, and it hampered the program’s potential in research, teaching, and outreach.
“When I came to UW–Madison in 2007, I had all kinds of ideas banked in my mind, plans for what I wanted to do for building a nationally recognized and prolific Meat Science Extension program,” says Jeff Sindelar, professor and extension meat specialist in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences. “I had to learn my limitations due to the building’s constraints. We didn’t have enough space, and I had to learn to adapt, to figure out other ways I could be impactful.”
The path to the new building started in June 2009, when MSABD and CALS leaders established a Meat Science Advisory Board of program alumni and industry leaders to help develop a vision for the project. Program alumnus Steve Van Lannen BS’91, president and COO of American Foods Group, has been one of the steadfast members of the board.
“We have a great history here, but the prior facility was so old and so decrepit that it made it difficult to attract young faculty,” says Van Lannen. “So it was really pivotal to be able to get this new facility to attract the faculty that we need to reestablish the meat science program.” (View an abbreviated timeline of significant meat science events in Bucky’s ‘Meaty’ History.)
Wisconsin’s meat industry is recognized for its strength and innovation, with a track record for developing new products and embracing best practices.
The state is home to more than 500 meat and poultry processors in 58 counties. They employ more than 105,000 workers, directly and indirectly, and make a $44.3 billion impact each year. Industry members have long turned to UW–Madison for training and research partnerships.
“We have all of these wonderful state-inspected plants all around Wisconsin,” says Van Lannen. “You go in every small town, and they have craftspeople producing unique meat items. And they really rely on Extension folks. Having a facility where Extension staff can train them, through offerings like the Master Meat Crafter Program, is really important.”
A big role of the Meat Science Advisory Board was to advocate and help raise funds for the project. And they did that in spades. A total of 270 donors — both companies and individuals, primarily from the state’s meat industry — contributed more than $20 million to help support the $57.1 million building project.
The project was approved by the UW Board of Regents in August 2012, design was completed in June 2016, and construction launched later that fall. Move-in started in summer 2020.
Sindelar, who served as the program and department representative throughout the process, is excited to finally be able to expand his Extension programming, including the Master Meat Crafter Program, so they can achieve the original goals he envisioned.
“Now we can do anything, and I can take the Extension programs that I developed — which, before, could only be proofs of concepts — and fully develop them while also creating new ones,” says Sindelar. “I can finally expand all of my previously limited pro- gramming and be much more prolific.”
Waste Product to Medical Windfall
It is indeed a new chapter for the MSABD program, as Steve Ricke says, and it introduces a number of new characters. Ricke is one of them. He joined the program as MSABD director in October 2020.
A leader in the field of microbial food safety in poultry, he is well-known for his research exploring how illness-causing Salmonella and Campylobacter survive in food animals on the farm and during processing as well as interventions to mitigate the risk these pathogens pose to consumers. Before coming to CALS, Ricke was a faculty member at the University of Arkansas, where he was the director of the university’s Center for Food Safety.
Ricke’s MSABD role is a homecoming of sorts. He received his Ph.D. in bacteriology and meat and animal science from CALS. As a graduate student, he trained under professor emeritus Dan Schaefer BS’73, MS’75, who served as MSABD’s first director until his retirement in late 2019. For Ricke, one of the exciting things about being back at CALS is overseeing the program’s launch into a new research focus area — animal biologics.
“We’ve always been well-positioned to do what I call traditional meat science — meat quality, food safety, those sorts of things,” says Ricke. “One of the [new] priorities for the building, for the program, is right in the title: biologics.”
The idea for this new focus arose early in the planning process, according to Van Lannen.
“In working with the college and the advisory committee, we said, ‘How do we make this not just like every other meat science building around the country,’” he says. “We decided that this focus could help add value for producers and help make it a unique facility.”
Biologics, briefly, are components or compounds from the unutilized or undervalued portions of meat animals that can be used to improve human or animal health. A good example is heparin, a blood-thinner medicine derived from porcine intestinal tissue.
This isn’t a new thing, actually. The meat processing industry has been saving certain components for medical uses for many years. There are glands and tissues that go toward pharmaceutical drug manufacturing; heart sacks and heart valves for human transplants; veins and cartilage for certain vitamin supplements or biomedical manufacturing.
The aim for MSABD, notes Ricke, is to take it to the next level.
“Our goal should be to have a purpose for every part of that animal. Every bit of it — gut contents, gut tissue, hooves, tails, the whole nine yards — so none of it ends up in a generic waste rendering stream,” says Ricke. “We’re going to promote that mentality because we believe it is an important aspect of the future of meat processing.”
CALS already has a track record in this area thanks to the work of Mark Cook and the research teams he led over the course of many years.
Cook, a professor of animal sciences who passed away in 2017, propelled the animal biologics component of the MSABD program. In addition to his poultry nutrition research, he explored a number of biologics, including proteins from chicken eggs to help boost meat animal growth and oil from the chicken preen gland to reduce stress in aquaculture-grown fish. Cook was a prolific entrepreneur with more than 40 patents and three start-up companies. The MSABD building’s main atrium area is named in his honor.
“I think Mark would very much personify what our biologics focus represents,” says Ricke. “This field helps with increasing sustainability, decreasing waste streams, and creating markets for producers of food animals and meat processors. As a land-grant university, that’s a wonderful thing for us to be doing.”
Two MSABD faculty members were hired in 2020 specifically to help launch the program’s efforts in this area.
“Wei and I already have pretty well-established research tracks that we’re on,” explains Leone. “I think as we pick up more pilot projects with biologics, and they start to gain traction, we’ll be able to shift our efforts to be more biologics-focused. We have the skill sets to do that, and now we’re in the program and the building to do it.”
Leone did her Ph.D. training in Mark Cook’s lab, where she studied poultry nutrition with a focus on the biologics molecule conjugated linoleic acid — a fatty acid from meat and dairy products shown to help reduce cancer, heart disease, and body fat. She then went to the University of Chicago’s Department of Medicine, where she learned about the microbiome and how to study it.
Now, back at UW, Leone is eager to merge her animal sciences and microbiome training. Her focus is on understanding how the gut microbial community promotes wellness and also contributes to disease — in people and animals. She looks at the host-microbiome interaction and how it is affected by diet, particularly in the context of circadian rhythms.
“Rhythms are important — feeding rhythms, sleeping rhythms — and they’re definitely a part of wellness,” says Leone. “How microbes contribute to those factors is really a key feature in understanding basic physiology.”
Stresses to this system, caused by changes in diet, for instance, can contribute to metabolic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, and can degrade immune function. Now, in one of her projects, Leone is exploring the role played by antimicrobial peptides produced in the gut of the host. Peptides are made of short chains of amino acids (longer chains are called proteins), and they are known to carry out important functions in the body.
“We think that antimicrobial peptides are really important for resetting the local intestinal clock, which helps all of our tissues in our body to stay aligned from a metabolic perspective,” says Leone. “We think that is important to prevent the development of metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes.”
Collaborations seem to come naturally to Leone. She’s developing projects with multiple partners, on and off campus. With MSABD faculty member Mark Richards, Leone will be exploring the impact of oxidized lipids on a host’s microbial community and disease development, and with associate professor of bacteriology Federico Rey, she plans to dissect the effects of a fast-food diet using germ-free mice. She’s also developing some research ideas with Jordan Sand PhD’10, chief technology officer at Ab E Discovery, the biofunctional feed technology company he cofounded with Mark Cook. And she’s just excited to work with poultry again. She can also envision collaborations with Ricke.
“With Steve and myself back on campus, we’re excited to reestablish those partnerships between the state’s poultry industry and UW–Madison,” she says.
While Guo’s research looks quite different from Leone’s, he’s also in a good position to identify new biologics. Guo investigates the fundamental mechanisms of muscle growth, development, and function, particularly looking at skeletal muscle and heart muscle. As a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Marion Greaser, now a professor emeritus of animal sciences, Guo developed expertise in muscle biology and RNA metabolism as he helped identify and characterize a new gene — known as RNA-binding protein 20, or RBM20 — and he’s been studying it ever since.
RBM20 helps modify the mRNA of an important muscle gene, called titin, which produces the largest natural protein known to science. The modification performed by RBM20 determines the size of individual titin proteins, which can range from around 27,000 to 33,000 amino acids in length.
“Titin protein is like a rubber band,” Guo says. “Its long form produces lower passive tension while its short form generates higher passive tension. It’s why our muscle is more flexible, like elastic, allowing our muscles to stretch.”
Different muscle tissues need different balances of short and long titin proteins. If the balance is off, that can lead to tissues that are too slack or too stiff, which can cause problems. For instance, in the heart.
People with a certain mutation in their RBM20 gene end up with more of the longer form of titin in their heart muscle, causing the muscle to be relatively slack. This causes a condition, known as dilated cardiomyopathy, where patients have enlarged hearts that don’t pump blood very well. With support from a National Institutes of Health grant, Guo is taking a deeper look at what happens in this situation and is attempting to develop a bioactive compound to treat this condition.
Guo notes that RBM20 is also an important factor for skeletal muscle development and growth. “Once we have an in-depth understanding of titin RNA metabolism through RBM20 regulation, I believe we can also improve muscle growth and production efficiency in food animals and thus increase animal producer profitability by targeting RBM20,” he says.
A newer focus of Guo’s program is exploring an RNA-based approach to delivering growth-promoting bioactive peptides to animals. The approach involves injecting animals with mRNA molecules that code for a desired peptide, such as a growth factor or a hormone. Once inside the body, the mRNA is then transcribed into peptides that help boost muscle growth.
“The mRNA-based COVID vaccines inspired me to go in this direction,” he says.
A third major project for Guo is looking at the impact of RNA binding proteins on fetal programming to determine how these proteins affect short-term and long-term development. This work could one day help prevent metabolic and other diseases caused by in utero exposure to damaging environmental factors.
Guo’s work has attracted the attention of a handful of faculty across campus, including several in the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. He is in the process of developing multiple research collaborations.
A Joint Venture
A lot of action in the MSABD building — including harvesting animals and collecting samples for Guo’s and Leone’s research — takes place in the USDA-inspected processing plant. It has the capabilities to handle, harvest, and process all major meat and poultry species, including beef, pork, lamb, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. It contains upward of 50 pieces of meat processing equipment, many of them brand new and all of them laced with technology.
“A lot of them are quite complex and require the company that donated it to come in and train us,” says Dillon Walker, who is in charge of the plant’s operations. “Everything that we have been trained on, we are using and operating.”
Walker runs things with the help of around 10 undergraduate part-time employees, a few limited-term staff, and occasional help from graduate students and faculty. Together, they tackle a wide variety of work. They make the meat products that are sold at Bucky’s Varsity Meats, the MSABD program’s retail component. They help set up for laboratory sessions, such as the muscle anatomy lab for the undergraduate course called Introduction to Meat Science and Technology, which is led by animal and dairy sciences professor Jim Claus. And they do what’s needed to support researchers from the department and across campus.
A significant and expanding portion of their work involves interfacing with and supporting companies that have fee-for-service projects they want conducted in the space.
“It’s exciting when we’re helping out different companies with their projects,” says Walker. “Those have been ramping up. It has been really fun just connecting with people in the meat industry and learning about their companies and what their research groups are pursuing as far as meat science goes.”
Companies approach Walker to partner on all kinds of projects. They want to utilize the building’s state-of-the-art pilot plant, as well as program and campus expertise, to test pieces of equipment they own, try out MSABD equipment that they don’t (yet) own, assess new or altered product formulas, test the shelf life of their products, and more.
“We plan to pursue problem-solving research, and I think that’s the backbone of any kind of research question being asked,” says Ricke. “Because of the diverse nature of our faculty, staff, and students, we can work on a wide range of [projects]. That makes me confident that we’re going to be valuable partners for industry.”
Each industry project also presents an opportunity for Walker’s student trainees to learn about meat companies and interact with their research and development people.
“[The students] also get exposed to the companies that come in,” says Walker, “For instance, a student that was with me [during a company visit] had some positive interactions with this company, and they asked for his contact info so they could reach out to him about his interest in a job.”
As Walker’s student employees gain experience, and as he develops the necessary systems, he envisions having between 30 and 40 undergraduates helping part-time in the USDA-inspected plant down the line. And there’s sure to be a need for these well-trained students when they graduate. Like the dairy industry, the state’s meat industry is anticipating a wave of retirements in
the coming decade or so.
“A big benefit of the facility is the human capital,” says Van Lannen. “We’re always looking for strong individuals who are trained well in meat science or food safety.”
Room to Grow — and Think Big
Opening a building during a global pandemic presents challenges. For the MSABD building, it slowed a lot of things down: moving in, gearing up research projects, offering in-person classes, hiring student employees, connecting with industry partners.
The grand opening, which took place in fall 2020, was a virtual-only event, and, so far, only small groups have been able to go through and use the building. The program staff looks forward to hosting tours, classes, and outreach programs for larger groups down the line. They are eager for people to see the inside of the building — and to get a sense for what’s possible there.
“When I give tours of the USDA plant, there’s two types of reactions,” Sindelar says. “One group, the people who have been in meat plants before, are like, ‘Wow, this place is awesome. You guys did an amazing job.’ The other group gets this overpowering effect. For them, it’s like going to New York City for the first time in your life. You’re just so overwhelmed, all the senses — the sights, the smells, the sounds. It’s just a lot to process.”
While activity has ramped up, some things aren’t yet moving at full steam. It’s also worth noting that the building is going to feel big — and a little empty — for a long time. It was built that way — with the future in mind, with the capacity to accommodate decades and decades of growth.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow more than today for lots of reasons,” says Sindelar, “to really start bringing people into the building and seeing the original vision being carried out — and in ways we haven’t even envisioned yet.”