Bandages made of cotton with built-in medication, non-allergic peanuts, rice flour French fries that absorb half the grease of the potato variety, a fungus that attacks Formosan termites – sound like science fiction dreams?
Thanks to a 67-year-old federal laboratory on the Lakefront, those wishful dreams may be coming to reality.
After all, these are the same folks who brought us durable press cotton and frozen concentrated orange juice.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southern Regional Research Center has been on Robert E. Lee Boulevard at Bayou St. John since just before 1940. According to director Dr. John Patrick Jordan, the lab’s scientists conduct research primarily on southern agricultural products, looking for new ways to add value to those products, and in nine research units that also work on health, safety and crop issues and study Formosan termites.
Without leaving town, a local scientist can have a career improving the lives of fellow human beings while taking part in some cutting-edge science. William J. Connick, Jr. graduated from De La Salle High School, obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at Loyola and a master’s in chemistry at Tulane. Aside from two years in the Army, the rest of his career was spent at the Southern Regional lab. “I was a chemist in the military working on fuel for flame-throwers. Then, I got back to New Orleans and started working on flame retardant cotton,” Connick recalls. “If you were interested in science, it was great to be able to work in New Orleans. Without that facility, I would’ve had to move to the East Coast.”
Cotton is still a lab priority but, as Connick notes, “the federal government will change its emphasis from time to time.” His own research switched to crop protection, “developing new formulations to provide a slow release property for herbicides.” His last major research area was “biological control – using the natural enemies of weeds and insects against them.”
Connick welcomed the variety of projects and he also appreciated his colleagues. “It was a fascinating place. They encourage collaboration with other scientists, here and across the country. We had the opportunity to travel to scientific meetings. We had cutting-edge equipment and instrumentation of every sort and there were scientists from a number of disciplines: chemistry, physics, biology.” Connick explains, “It was sort of a critical mass of scientists. If you had a problem or new idea you could always find somebody to go to.”
Opportunities to publish research and get patents for inventions (patents are held by the government and are available for public use) are major career benefits for those working at the Southern Regional Research Center. Even in the year after Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of publications by the center’s scientists made it into the scientific press, according to Dr. Jordan. The total of publications over time is remarkable. Dr. Alan Lax noted that a recent publication he co-authored was numbered 9,900 by the center’s library.
Katrina’s winds whipped rooftop gravel into the laboratory building’s windows, shattering many, and floodwaters drenched the lower floor laboratories. Dr. Jordan takes pride in the fact that his scientists were all relocated to 22 labs across the country and “everyone listed on their 1040 [tax form]” was also relocated and taken care of, including some housed in FEMA trailers on the center’s grounds. Damage to the New Orleans facility labs, equipment and lower floors totaled about $35.6 million but two Congressional appropriations and initial money from the national Agricultural Research Service funds will cover that total.
The work to rebuild and re-equip the laboratories is ongoing. Dr. Alfred French, touring the building recently, could point out the de-humidifiers still working to fight mold. “We had some real Technicolor molds in the labs,” he notes. There has also been some down-scaling in recent years – the big cotton looms have gone to a lab in South Carolina, and the workforce is now around 250, with a seasonal increase for summer workers (including college and high school students).
Dr. French’s work is with cotton on a molecular level and he labors mostly with a computer. However, he has another scientific talent: he’s an expert catfish taster. One of the lab’s programs involves farm-raised catfish and problems that might occur when the fish pick up chemicals that affect their taste. French, plus a number of local taste-testers from the public, is aiding in the design of scientific equipment that can identify the small traces of off-taste his alert human taste buds can detect. “My wife never lets me order catfish in a restaurant,” French admits. Eventually, gas chromatography (“like on the C.S.I. television show”) will be used to identify the taste-ruining culprits, without the help of human diners.
Although cotton may now be wrinkle free, Dr. Vincent Edwards and Dr. Brian Condon are working on what Condon refers to as “new ways of treating cotton cloth to give added value to fabric,” such as cotton bandages that will promote wound healing and cotton hospital bed-sheets that will fight infections.
Dr. Alan Lax is spending his time with the Formosan termite – which is currently infesting eleven states: Hawaii, California, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina and Louisiana.
Yes, Formosan termites can be controlled but there’s a constant search for better methods. “If we can figure out a way to make them all become ‘soldiers,’ who don’t eat, then they would starve to death,” Dr. Lax notes. There is now a patent for a fungal spore foam that can actually spread upward through an injected tree to kill termites. There is even a termite genome project to map the insect’s genes. There is also a project to improve electronic detection of termite infestation.
Another agricultural commodity getting attention at the labs is the peanut. Creating a peanut without allergens would certainly improve life for those who suffer allergic reactions to peanuts. Also, sunflower seeds can now be made into a tasty peanut butter substitute – another product of the local scientists’ ingenuity.
Rice improvements (besides the rice French fry) will include a quicker-cooking brown rice. The brown rice grains will be blasted with rice particles to create micro-pores on their surface in order to speed up the cooking process. In addition, improvements in rice bran and flour can make a better bread for those who’re allergic to wheat.
On a more basic level, there’s ongoing research to develop resistance in the genes of plants to aflatoxins, which attack cotton, corn and a number of other crops. There is also research working to turn agricultural waste (including chicken droppings and pecan hulls) into activated carbon, which can be used as a purifying agent.
If its $32 million annual local budget isn’t enough to keep the Southern Regional Research Center in the public eye, the center also boasts a historic marker on the front of the building. The site is designated as a “National Historic Chemical Landmark” for work on durable press and flame retardant cotton.
“These significant advances in the properties of cotton enabled this natural fiber to remain a highly competitive textile” – and allowed the Southern Regional Research Center to keep New Orleans and the state in the forefront of both science and agriculture.