Auburn University catfish researcher helps local communities sustain their way of life

AUBURN – 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 include tractor 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 Warmwater 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 improved harvest. His research is being applied to the catfish 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 is recognized as a world leader in his field and has been awarded $14 million for research through 77 federal, state and university grants during his time at Auburn. He came to Auburn in 1978 to work on his master’s degree, which he earned in 1979 followed by Ph.D. in 1981. He has published 223 scientific articles, chapters and proceedings papers.

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 course, 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 States. 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 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 laboratory 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.”

Dunham believes integrated solutions are needed to make advances in genetic improvement and that genetic research is a long-term, never-ending puzzle that has great rewards along the way. The future of catfish research, he says, includes learning more about traditional selective breeding, building a better hybrid through both selection and transgenics, learning how to use genome data to make practical applications, and using cryogenics to preserve species.

“In building a house, you use more than one tool,” he said. “The same is true for research. You use more than one tool to reach your objective.”

(Written by Charles Martin.)

Contact: Charles Martin, (334) 844-9999 (, or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (

Hi-res images below:

Rex Dunham works with a channel catfish at Auburn University. Dunham recently won the university's Creative Research and Scholarship Award for his career work on the hybridization of channel and blue catfish.

Rex Dunham works with a channel catfish at Auburn University. Dunham recently won the university’s Creative Research and Scholarship Award for his career work on the hybridization of channel and blue catfish.

Auburn University Professor Rex Dunham