May 2017
Farm & Field

Fish to Feed the World

An Auburn student’s research targets increased catfish production to address growing demands in developing countries.


Nermeen Youseff’s research could result in more efficient production for Alabama’s catfish industry.

To Auburn University Ph.D. student Nermeen Yousseff, finding ways to feed the world’s growing population has the potential to positively impact the lives of others. Youseff traveled across the globe from Alexandria, Egypt, to find a place where her research could have an impact such as on Alabama’s $100 million catfish industry.

Youseff’s research focuses on the growth performance of male and female transgenic channel catfish at various stages of development in earthen ponds. The research project was honored with the Soy Aquaculture Alliance’s Student Award during the World Aquaculture Society’s annual meeting in February.

The findings of this research, titled "Effect of combined transgenic channel catfish Ictalurus punctatus growth hormone and their siblings on growth rate of channel catfish in earthen ponds," found the transgenic catfish utilizing the growth hormone were capable of maturing faster than nontransgenic catfish lacking the growth hormone.

"The faster catfish mature the faster they can be used for food and make profits for farmers," Youseff said. "In today’s world where you have people living in countries with deficiencies in available protein sources, producing catfish this way could change that."

Alabama’s catfish sales saw an increase in sales in 2016 to $120 million, marking three consecutive years of growth for the industry. Alabama is the second-highest producing state for catfish.

Dr. Rex Dunham, left, and Nermeen Youseff are working together to help Alabama’s farmers.


Dr. Rex Dunham, a professor in Auburn’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, said he believes Youseff’s work could help profits expand for Alabama’s farmers even more.

Youseff was a visiting scholar at Auburn when Dunham first saw her work.

"I was so impressed I agreed to mentor Youseff, making her an official Auburn student," Dunham said.

"The work is high quality and it’s rare to find someone whose work is so interesting," Dunham said. "Her research is practical and can be directly applied in the industry."

In addition to finding a way to produce fish more efficiently, Youseff’s research led to a new discovery in production patterns of male versus female catfish.

"Even though typically male channel catfish grow at a faster rate, Youseff found that with these transgenic catfish the females matured more quickly," he said.

Dunham’s personal research achievements include the first release of genetically improved fish. His work led to the formation of the first four commercial genetics and breeding companies in the catfish industry.

According to Dunham, who was the first researcher to produce a transgenic fish in the United States, Youseff’s research would have a greater impact if federal regulations allowed.

"There’s a lot of distrust of growth hormones and anything that’s been modified," Dunham said. "These fish are safe to eat and, given the chance, could have a significant impact on production speed to feed more people."

Industry leaders are already impressed with Youseff’s contributions.

Vice President of the U.S. Aquaculture Society Angela Caporelli said Youseff’s presentation impressed a panel of 50 judges at the organization’s annual meeting. USAS is a 3,000-member organization consisting of professors, students and industry leaders.

"The students are judged for professionalism and how in-depth their research is," Caporelli said. "She did really well in the spotlight presentation. The judges look for students whose research follows trends in the industry."

Caporelli said the World Aquaculture Society’s annual meeting provides students with networking opportunities where they can discuss their projects with others in the industry to keep track of trends in catfish production.

"The students who do win awards are judged by those experts in the industry," Caporelli said.

According to Caporelli, the Soy Aquaculture Alliance’s Student Award is given to students whose research can be applied in a wide scope and remain practical.

Dunham, who has been researching genetic improvement since he was a graduate student at Auburn in 1978, said he hopes Youseff will continue to research genetic improvements in catfish after she graduates with her doctoral degree from Auburn in May.

Youseff said her mission is to continue researching ways to increase the productivity in fisheries in Alexandria, Egypt, where she has accepted a position as a professor at Alexandria University.


Rebecca Oliver is a freelance writer from Auburn.