Smith, Fanta inducted into USDA-ARS Hall of Fame

Smith's work has had direct impact on livestock industry through development of genetic markers, DNA tests associated with production traits in cattle, pigs.

April 20, 2023

4 Min Read
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The Agricultural Research Service will induct two scientists into its Science Hall of Fame for scientific achievements in developing innovative biobased products and leveraging genomic tools to improve livestock health and productivity.

George F. Fanta and Timothy P.L. Smith will be honored in a ceremony at the ARS National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. ARS established the Hall of Fame program in 1986 to honor senior agency researchers for outstanding, lifelong achievements in agricultural science and technology. Nominees must be retired or eligible to retire to receive the award.

"Drs. Fanta and Smith are being recognized for exemplary research that has had significant impact on the agricultural sector and general public through their innovative approaches to problem-solving," said ARS Administrator Simon Liu. "They exemplify the values that have made ARS the premier agricultural research organization that it is today."

Smith, a research chemist with the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center's Genetics and Animal Breeding Research unit in Clay Center, Nebraska, was among the first to shape the direction and evolution of ARS's animal genomics program. As a member of the "Gene Mapping Group," Smith and his colleagues' publication of the first genetic maps of cattle, pigs and sheep won a USDA Secretary's award for excellence in 1994.

Smith's work has had direct impact on the livestock industry through development of genetic markers and DNA tests associated with production traits in cattle, pigs and sheep as well as genetic mutations that influence the physical expression of those traits in the animals.

For example, Smith's patent on markers associated with beef tenderness represent some of the first genetic markers that were put into commercial use (in 2003) and are still used on tens of thousands of beef cattle each year to select for the tenderness trait in beef cattle. He also led studies of a myostatin gene in Belgium Blue and Piedmontese cattle that determined two distinct gene mutations were responsible for the breeds' increased muscle mass trait, known as "double muscling." The paper describing this work has been cited over 1,600 times since being published in the journal Genome Research in 1997—including 78 citations in 2022 alone.

Smith's contributions to ARS's genomic programs include initiating the transition from microsatellite marker-based maps to single nucleotide polymorphism markers. This switch enabled genome-wide associations studies and better use of markers for trait selection than was possible with genome mapping. 

Together with National Institutes of Health collaborators, Smith co-developed a method called "trio-binning" that improved the efficiency and accuracy of genome assemblies for livestock and humans by first sequencing forms of parental DNA that offspring inherit called haplotypes, which reside on a single chromosome.   

More recently, Smith co-developed a method for automating the assembly of microbial genomes in livestock that's used worldwide to assist with investigations of foodborne illness and disease, as well as all allows for differentiating between closely related strains or species. 

His expertise in microbial and animal genomics has prompted speaker invitations from around the world and industry recognition for his achievements in promoting not only livestock health and productivity, but also food safety and environmental sustainability.

A research chemist at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization's Plant Polymer Research unit in Peoria, Illinois, Fanta led the development of industrial and consumer-health products derived from agricultural commodities, particularly corn starch and wheat flour. Fanta's scientific creativity also extended to adopting existing procedures to create new biobased products. Most notably, he developed cost-effective steam-jet cooking methods used to create a variety of new and useful functional food properties.

His technological innovations and 34 patents in the field of materials science gave rise to three distinct classes of biobased products and opened the door to new economic opportunities for U.S. producers and rural communities nationwide:

  • Super Absorbent Polymers, including "Super Slurper," which spawned applications in everything from disposable diapers and sanitary napkins, to seed coatings and fire-suppressive gels. Fanta began researching SAPs in the mid-1960s and the technology today underpins an industrial market surpassing $80 billion to date, not counting other spinoff products with a market value of approximately $100 billion.   

  • Starch-encapsulated oils, trademarked as Fantesk and used commercially in dry lubricant, skin care, veterinary drug delivery and reduced-fat food applications. The patented Fantesk technology alone generated 13 cooperative research and development agreements with private industry as well as numerous licenses.   

  •  Amylose inclusion complexes, or "AICs," which can be coated onto wood, glass and other materials to impart water repellency, deter termite feeding or curb microbial growth, depending on need. These versatile materials show promise as emulsifiers in food and industrial cleaners.

Throughout his 57-year career, Fanta has served as a mentor to many young scientists from around the world and has received many awards and grants. This includes the National Corn Growers II Challenge in 2019 given by NCGA in support of Fanta's AIC research. He also received numerous awards over his career including two Secretary's Awards (1998, 2004) and six Technology Transfer Awards.

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