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Shrimp News: Hi Arun, tell me a little about yourself.
Arun Dhar: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity. I was born in India, in the state of West Bengal, in a small town at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. All my schooling, from the elementary level through high school, took place in this town, and then I pursued my undergraduate study at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswa Vidyalaya, an agricultural university in West Bengal, about 400 kilometers away from my home. My mother tongue is Bangla, and all my schooling through 12th grade was in Bangla, but from then on, through college and graduate school, all my instruction was in English.
Shrimp News: Was it a problem making the transition from Bangla to English?
Arun Dhar: No, not at all because I began learning English in first grade and continued reading English literature all the way through high school. I recall reading poems written by William Wordsworth, the famous English poet (1770 to 1850). If you read Wordsworth’s writing and poetry, you’ll discover that he wrote about nature, and I found that very fascinating because I grew up in a very green world of plants and trees.
Shrimp News: What was your high school curriculum like?
Arun Dhar: I majored in science, focusing on biology and chemistry.
Shrimp News: What was your college major?
Arun Dhar: In college, I majored in plant science and then completed a two-year master’s degree program in 1988 and a four-year Ph.D. program in 1992 at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), India’s premier national institute for agricultural research, education and extension, based in New Delhi.
Shrimp News: What was the topic of your master’s degree thesis?
Arun Dhar: I worked on an RNA virus that infects ornamental plants, and for my Ph.D. degree, I worked on a single-stranded DNA virus that infects all kinds of beans. Before I finished my Ph.D., I took a nationally competitive exam and ranked third in India, which qualified me for a job in the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), equivalent to USDA-ARS system. I also had an offer for a post-doctoral work in Agriculture Canada. I decided not to take the ICAR job. I was young, and I wanted to explore the world. So, I joined Agriculture Canada in New Brunswick, Canada, where I worked (1992-1994) on an RNA virus that infects potatoes. It turned out that the potato virus is very similar to the Taura syndrome virus in shrimp.
Shrimp News: It must have been a big surprise to you when you later got involved with shrimp viruses that your potato virus was similar to the Taura syndrome virus.
Arun Dhar: It was a surprise, and I’m often asked, “Why did I switch from potatoes to shrimp?” And I answer, “Yes, potatoes and shrimp are very different entities, but they both make good curries.” The two viruses have lot of similarities at the molecular and genetic level. At that time (the early 1990s), I learned there was not much known on the molecular level about shrimp viruses. I felt that if I did anything on the molecular level with shrimp viruses, it could have a major impact on an emerging industry. That was 16 years ago, and, of course, I did not understand the field as much as I do today, and I had no idea at the time that I would be known for my work on shrimp viruses. But I did realize that if I did do something in the field of shrimp virology, I would be able to make a worthwhile contribution.
After the postdoc in Canada, to get more experience, I decided to do another postdoc at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts (1994-1998), and that’s when I started working with shrimp. Tufts University, as a member of the US Marine Shrimp Consortium, had research funding to develop genetic markers for virus disease resistance in shrimp including the Taura syndrome virus. And, as I said before, the Taura syndrome virus has many similarities with the potato virus that I had worked on in Canada. At Tufts, Acacia Alcivar-Warren, D.V.M., Ph.D., was the principal investigator and my supervisor. I was there for about four and a half years, and that’s when I began thinking about genomics and genome sequencing for shrimp. The first ever Aquaculture Genome Workshop was held at the University of Massachusetts. Acacia Alcivar-Warren was the leader of that workshop, and I helped her with the program.
After Tufts, I went to work for Super Shrimp in San Diego, California, USA, which farmed Penaeus stylirostris on a large farm in Mexico at the northern end of the Gulf of California. I worked at Super Shrimp from 1999 to 2001, when the company collapsed. Scientifically speaking, my years at Super Shrimp were the most productive in my career up until that time. I published ten papers while working at Super Shrimp. For example, my colleagues and I at Super Shrimp were the first to sequence the IHHN virus. We also developed real-time PCR-based detection methods for four major shrimp viruses that included IHHNV, WSSV, TSV and YHV. I also started applying the functional genomic approaches like cDNA microarray analysis, mRNA differential display, EST analysis, and real-time PCR for looking into the gene expression profiles in shrimp upon virus infection with an aim to identify target(s) for antiviral therapies. If you think back to 1999/2000, fifteen to sixteen years ago, it was a landmark time for shrimp biology.
Shrimp News: Earlier you mentioned your colleagues at Super Shrimp. Who were they?
Arun Dhar: Dr. Kurt Klimpel was the director of research and development at Super Shrimp. I also spent a lot of time at the laboratory of Dr. Jane Burns at the University of California in San Diego. Jane developed a retroviral vector for transformation of a mammalian cell line, and she wanted to determine if those vectors could be used for transformation of shellfish including shrimp and oyster. Super Shrimp was funding some research in Jane’s lab, and I spent a lot of time in her lab working to identify targets for developing anti-viral therapies in shrimp using functional genomic approaches.
Shrimp News: When did you get married?
Arun Dhar: I got married after I moved to Canada.
Shrimp News: How did you get to know your wife?
Arun Dhar: I grew up in India at a time when schools were primarily all-male or all-female, but today it’s different, the sexes are mixed. In 1989, when I was doing my Ph.D. in IARI, New Delhi, I got a letter from my current wife, who was a pen-pal. I still have every letter that she wrote to me and every letter that I sent to her. Hundreds of letters. We wrote from our hearts. We fell in love through our correspondence. I was in New Delhi, and she was in Calcutta, about 1,400 kilometers apart. I visited her and her family a couple of times and later proposed to her. This all happened about 25 years ago. I was very young. I did not know much about the world. I grew up in a simple, ordinary family, but most importantly, my mother taught me that honesty is the most important virtue in life, something that is somewhat uncommon in today’s world.
Shrimp News: After the collapse of Super Shrimp, what was your next job?
Arun Dhar: The Super Shrimp lab was closed in May 2001. Prior to that, I had submitted a grant application to the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and later that month, I got a call from NOAA, informing me that I had received a $280,000 grant. I flew to Silver Springs, Maryland, where NOAA headquarter is located, and met with NOAA officials. I told them what was happening at Super Shrimp, and they told me that since I was the principal investigator for the grant, I could take it to the University of California in San Diego or San Diego State University. I decided on San Diego State University because its overhead charges were almost 20% less than those at the University of California, meaning more money for my research. The University of California wanted 50% of the grant to cover its overhead costs, and San Diego State only wanted 30%. I saved close to $60,000 by taking the grant to San Diego State.
Shrimp News: What did you work on at San Diego State University?
Arun Dhar: The grant was for looking into gene expression profiling by cDNA microarry in shrimp upon whitespot syndrome virus infection. The cDNA microarray analysis enables us to identify genes that are up or down-regulated in shrimp after WSSV infection. The differentially expressed genes can serve as a target for developing therapy against WSSV infection in shrimp. At the same time, a start-up company in Maryland, Advanced BioNutrition (ABN), also offered to fund my research. At the time Super Shrimp collapsed, Dr. Robert Bullis, former head of the United States Marine Shrimp Farming Consortium in Hawaii, left the Consortium and moved to Maryland for family reasons. He wanted me to join Advanced BioNutrition. I couldn’t do that because my wife was still in school in San Diego, so ABN added approximately $200,000 to my US$280,000 NOAA grant. I had one other smaller contract to work on real-time PCR-based detection of major viral pathogen for shrimp. So, I had over a half million dollars to work on gene expression profiling and virus detection in shrimp at San Diego State University. And then, while at San Diego State University, I got additional funds from another grant to develop real-time, PCR-based detection of hepatitis A virus in seawater. So, I brought almost $600,000 to San Diego State University between 2002-2004.
Shrimp News: Were you also teaching at San Diego State University?
Arun Dhar: No, it was a 100% research position, but I did mentor two graduate students who were doing their master’s degrees on detection of human viruses in environmental samples. The genetic tools and technology that I used for shrimp research were easily applied for the detection of viruses infecting humans.
Shrimp News: What did you work on after you left San Diego State University?
Arun Dhar: In 2005, I joined Advanced BioNutrition Corporation, Columbia, Maryland, as a Senior Scientist, where I led efforts to develop vaccines and antiviral therapies in fish and shellfish. I developed a virus-like, particle-based vaccine against viral diseases in salmonids. Along with my colleagues, I proposed a novel idea of using shrimp as a biofactory for producing pharmaceutically important proteins for human applications. That idea got major funding (around $1.7 million) from the US Defense Department. Later the technology was spun off into a new company, which I joined, called “Viracine Therapeutics Corp.” In October 2009, I also became a consultant at ABN to finish off some of the viral vaccine work on finfish that I was doing. When Viracine Therapeutics Corp ran into some management problems, I took a job as a visiting professor at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, for about a year, from 2012 to 2013; all teaching, no research. In 2014, I joined Intrexon, a multinational company, which fully or partially owns many advanced genetic technologies, including transgenic salmon that grows much faster than wild salmon. I worked for Intrexon for three years (2014- 2016). Then in January 2017, I joined the University of Arizona, my current position.
Shrimp News: How did you find out about the job at the University of Arizona?
Arun Dhar: I saw an ad for the position and submitted my application. The University was looking for someone who had industry experience, who had developed intellectual property, who had trained students and who was familiar with fundraising and grant writing. Throughout my career, I had been actively engaged in teaching, training and mentoring graduate students in California, Massachusetts and Maryland. It seemed like a perfect fit for me.
Shrimp News: Will you be teaching at the University of Arizona?
Arun Dhar: Yes, 30% of my time will be teaching upper-level graduate students and 70% will be for research. I’ve only been at the University for four weeks now, and the course that I’ll be teaching has not been fully outlined yet, but I can tell you that it will be an aquaculture course.
Shrimp News: Was there a lot of competition for the job?
Arun Dhar: I can only guess about that because I don’t know went on behind the curtain. But there must have been a lot of competition because it was a very desirable position. I’m humbled and honored that the University offered me the job.
Shrimp News: How rigorous was the interview process?
Arun Dhar: I think the advertisement for the position was released in December 2015, and I applied in early January 2016. I didn’t hear anything until April 2016 and began to think they had probably found someone else. I knew I was highly qualified for the job, and, at the very least, should get an interview. Then, in April 2016, I got an e-mail from the chairman of the search committee requesting three letters of recommendation. Those letters were submitted by colleagues and professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell University, and Dr. Robert Bullis, the former director of the United States Marine Shrimp Farming Consortium, whom I had worked with at Advanced BioNutrition. In my application, I had also included the names of many other people from industry and academia with whom I had worked for many years. Then, I didn’t hear anything about the job until the second week of June 2016, when I got a call from the chairman of the search committee asking me if I could come to Arizona for an interview within a week. I said “no” because I had booked a trip to India during that time. He was very gracious, and said, “Can you come as soon as you return from India?” I agreed and went to Tucson, Arizona, on July 27, 28 and 29, 2016 for the interview.
As part of my interview, I had to give a one-hour presentation on my research plan for the next five years. I prepared that presentation on the flight to Tucson. It included six research proposals, some of which are propriety information, but here are three of them: (1) new diagnostic techniques (nothing comparable to them on the market today), (2) novel anti-viral therapies and (3) how to use nutrition and genomic approaches to enhance health and improve production. The University of Arizona made all the travel arrangements and provided very nice accommodations at a bed and breakfast cottage near the campus. After the interview, I felt like I had a very good chance of getting the job.
Shrimp News: When did you get a job offer?
Arun Dhar: In the second week of August 2016, I got an email from the chairman of the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences Department, requesting a good time for a phone chat. I gave him a day, guessing that he was going to make an offer, which he did. In January 2017, I moved to Arizona.
Shrimp News: Was Dr. Lightner part of the interview process?
Arun Dhar: No, I have had no communications with Dr. Lightner.
Shrimp News: Tell me a little about the Aquaculture Pathological Laboratory?
Arun Dhar: The Aquaculture Pathological Laboratory is the only World Animal Health Organization (OIE) reference laboratory for crustacean disease in the United States. It’s also a United States Department of Agriculture approved lab.
Shrimp News: Is it a well-equipped, modern lab, or will you have to bring in new equipment and personnel to bring it up to date?
Arun Dhar: I’ve seen top laboratories in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The Arizona lab is up to world standards, but like all labs, it can be improved substantially, especially in the area of infrastructure and equipment. The University is already taking care of some of the upgrades.
Shrimp News: Will you have a research budget?
Arun Dhar: Yes, the University has provided me with a substantial start-up research budget.
Shrimp News: Will you be able to hire new scientists and personnel?
Arun Dhar: Yes, I’ll be able to hire people and update instruments and equipment.
Shrimp News: How does it feel to be replacing such a famous shrimp pathologist?
Arun Dhar: I have profound admiration and respect for Dr. Donald Lightner, the legendary pathologist that I have replaced. Don has brought the field of shrimp diseases from obscurity to global prominence, and most important, he has done it eloquently, using simple tools and technologies, like pathology, histology and, later in his career, some molecular tools. He has set a very high global standard for all crustacean pathologists. He understood the biology so well that he could use his knowledge in biology to apply the simple tools of histopathology to solve many of the problems in the shrimp industry. But as the shrimp industry evolved from subsistence level farming to a global industry, I think there is a need to apply genomics and molecular tools in a much more aggressive way to solve shrimp farming’s existing problems and to address its emerging problems. What I hope to do in my new position is to serve the industry, like Don has done for the last thirty years or so. We will continue to do everything that Don did, but we will also support the industry with genomic research, which will be a key part of my research program.
I’m here to serve the industry; I’m not here to impose my thoughts on the industry. I want to help make the shrimp farming industry much more productive, profitable, and sustainable for decades to come.
Shrimp News: What will be your first research projects?
Arun Dhar: I’m facing many competing priorities—and all of them are important. I’m hesitant to pick one over the other. It’s like asking, “Which of your children do you love the most?” I think it’s important to find out more about Enterocytozoon hepatopenaei (EHP). I want to develop the tools and technology that will allow us to better monitor the diseases impacting shrimp farming globally. For example, I would like to develop a field application for RNA silencing-based therapy. There are dozens of scientific papers on the potential of RNA silencing for the treatment of shrimp diseases, like whitespot syndrome disease, but there is not a single product on the market that a farmer can use to control the disease when there’s an outbreak—or when the disease is about to emerge. The tools and technologies are available to bridge the existing gap between basic research and farm level applications. I want to put those tools in the hands of the farmer. It may sound simple, but in reality it’s an extraordinarily difficult task. I will try to develop a generic platform so that the technology that is used to control, say whitespot syndrome virus, will be easily be adapted to control other diseases. Finally, I plan to focus on shrimp genetics. There is no genetic line of shrimp that is resistant to diseases like whitespot syndrome and that are widely available in the global market. Admittedly, there are published reports of whitespot resistant lines, but they are not available around the world. I think that if we have a thorough understanding of the shrimp genome, then we should be able to use that knowledge to develop lines of shrimp that are resistant to all the major pathogens.
Shrimp News: In the United States, researchers spent a lot of money developing specific pathogen free (SPF) broodstock. I always thought that specific pathogen resistant (SPR) postlarvae were a much better idea than SPF because—unless you raise your shrimp in a highly controlled, biosecure facility—once you stock clean postlarvae (SPF) into a dirty pond, they die. Therefore, I think we should be spending more research dollars on resistance. Do you agree with that?
Arun Dhar [hesitatingly]: Yes, it’s important to get in balance with the environment. Developing SPF broodstock was the equivalent of picking the low-hanging fruit. Developing SPR broodstock is several orders of magnitude more complex.
Shrimp News: Australia has been hit with the white spot virus after having been, more or less, free of it for thirty years. It’s hitting the shrimp farms in southern Queensland very hard. What course of action would you recommend for the shrimp farming industry in Australia?
Arun Dhar: I’m very reluctant to give advice when I don’t have all the information. I think Australia has all the resources for making that decision on its own. It has excellent researchers and they know what to do. They do not need advice from me. I have fond admiration for a number of researchers in Australia. I have collaborated on research papers with Dr. Peter Walker and Jeff Cowley. Peter is an excellent virologist, and well known for his work globally. Leigh Owens and Nigel Preston are two other excellent researchers, and there are many more in Australia. Their track record is excellent. In addition, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is a fantastic organization with top-of-the-line researchers working in the field of virology.
Having said that, to stop the spread of any disease, I think the first and best weapon is prevention. That is, keep the disease out, and if it gets in, stop its spread. I don’t have exact numbers, but I think there are over 100 vectors for whitespot, including worms, other crustaceans and other aquatic animals. There’s no better strategy than blocking the spread. The area of the disease must be identified, and the disease must be stopped from spreading. Once a virus like whitespot is loose in the wild, it is very difficult to eradicate.
Shrimp can carry low levels of the virus without breaking with the disease, but those animals become a reservoir for the virus and can become vectors for its spread. If a disease becomes endemic, but remains at a very low level of infection, with no clinical manifestations, then it becomes very difficult to control. Look at the IHHN virus, a disease that’s endemic, but it’s not killing shrimp. In many cases, you will find farms with shrimp that are infected with IHHNV at such low levels that may not cut into production, significantly. Sometimes, if a host is infected with one virus, it’s refractory to infection from a second virus. It’s known that shrimp infected with IHHNV are refractory to white spot syndrome, and, if I remember correctly, to the Taura syndrome virus as well.
Shrimp News: Do you have any message that you would like to deliver to the shrimp farmers of the world about yourself or the program you will be developing at the University of Arizona?
Arun Dhar: At a personal level, I’m humbled and honored that the University of Arizona offered me this position and trusted me to run the program. I plan to do research that will make the global shrimp industry sustainable for decades into the future.