University of Arizona professor, pathology center giants of shrimp disease diagnosis

2013-05-09T00:00:00Z University of Arizona professor, pathology center giants of shrimp disease diagnosisDrew McCullough For The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Despite its desert landscape and lack of an ocean, Tucson is home to one of the world's leading experts in shrimp pathology - University of Arizona professor Donald Lightner of the UA's shrimp pathology center.

It's among the pre-eminent shrimp-disease diagnostic centers in the world.

Lightner, who started the center in 1986, shares his expertise with shrimp farmers and researchers around the world.

The facility studies issues that affect the health of shrimp so the industry can flourish and so consumers aren't at potential risk.

The main focus is on health issues that affect other shrimp and crustaceans, according to Lightner.

"Very few problems in shrimp are zoonotic, meaning that they are a threat to humans," he said. Which is good for consumers because "the quality of shrimp on the U.S. market gets better all the time."

Lightner said his favorite part about his job is that "we discover something new, completely new, every year.

"We will describe a new disease, find out something that's unique about the animals that we work with," he said, "that no one knew before.

"That's the whole idea," Lightner said. "Every year we get a little bit better with sustainability."

It's important to study diseases that affect shrimp stock and sustainability because it's one of the most widely consumed types of seafood in the world, and the most consumed in the U.S., Lightner said.

The U.S. imports more than $4 billion in shrimp every year. And yes, Lightner says he eats shrimp.

Big role for little critters

The small creatures also play an important role in the wild because most ocean animals eat shrimp.

The center's study of disease-diagnostic methods of farm-raised shrimp is valuable because "shrimp farming passed shrimp fisheries in terms of production about three years ago," Lightner said.

For example, Lightner and his team are studying a new bacterial disease called "early mortality syndrome," which is causing serious problems for shrimp farmers in Southeast Asia. The disease causes shrimp to die right after they are stocked, he said.

The center also works with companies that use selective breeding programs to develop shrimp stocks that are resistant to specific viral diseases.

Although Lightner received his masters degree and doctorate in fish pathology in 1971, he said it was nearly impossible to find a job in the fisheries area. Instead, he took the first job opening at the National Marine Fisheries Laboratory for shrimp in Galveston, Texas.

"At that time they were developing shrimp aquaculture methods - primarily hatchery methods," he said.

"It was the really early stages of shrimp aquaculture development," which means that the shrimp are grown on a farm, rather than caught in the wild.

Lightner accepted a position at UA and moved to Tucson in 1975. Once here, he began work on a shrimp-growing project in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, also known as Rocky Point.

"It was one of the first attempts anywhere in the world to develop super-intensive culture," he said.

Worldwide reach

Lightner became the head of UA's shrimp pathology center at the West Campus Aquaculture Center, which opened in 1986 at Miracle Mile and Interstate 10.

After being open for 27 years and becoming one of the top-notch shrimp disease diagnostic centers in the world, UA's center now receives shrimp samples from all around the world.

"There's probably about 50 or so countries globally that are involved in shrimp aquaculture," Lightner said, "and we get samples from most of them."

Shrimp samples are mailed in alcohol to preserve the specimens for tests.

Lightner teaches shrimp farmers and researchers from around the world. He created the Shrimp Pathology Short Course in 1989 in response to many requests "from people who wanted to come to my lab for training, but we just couldn't accommodate them all."

Lightner has taught more than 600 participants from 55 countries since it began, and expects 24 participants from nine countries this year.

Lightner's UA facility became a reference laboratory for the World Organization for Animal Health in 1993.

Drew McCullough is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact him at 573-4117 or at

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