Ag Research Spotlight:
“I find reproductive biology fundamentally exciting. All the things that happen to one cell – how the first steps of differentiation happen – is just one of the most interesting things to think about.” –Ryan Cabot, Professor of Animal Sciences
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for September 2015 underscores the theme, “Utilizing molecular approaches to expand the frontiers of agriculture and life sciences.”
A career in agriculture didn’t dawn on Ryan Cabot until he had nearly finished his undergraduate training. Despite growing up in Hermann, Missouri, a small town about 90 miles west of St. Louis, and having grandparents that farmed, Cabot didn’t take any ag classes offered in his high school, and didn’t participate in 4-H or FFA. “I was always interested in science,” he says, “but I never had a grasp of what careers that could lead to, aside from becoming a physician, veterinarian, or teaching high school science.”
After studying business for three semesters at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Cabot switched his focus to biochemistry, thinking his next step would be to attend medical school. Knowing he wanted some experience aside from the restaurant work he had done during his undergraduate studies, Cabot visited his college’s career office just a few weeks before graduation. The counselor steered him toward looking for a job as an entry-level research technician. Ultimately Cabot found a position in a reproductive biology laboratory in animal sciences – a major he didn’t know existed. “I was blown away,” he recalls. “I knew, this is what I want to do.” He went on to complete his doctorate in reproductive biology at Missouri and two years of postdoctoral work in a developmental biology lab at the Adolf-Butenandt-Institute, Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich, Germany. He applied for an opening at Purdue, drawn by an independent research position in a growing department. He joined the faculty in July 2004.
Cabot studies the basic mechanisms that control early embryonic development. Over the past 40 years, scientists have enhanced reproductive efficiency in domestic livestock by learning to produce mammalian embryos in the laboratory that become healthy, live-born animals. However, many embryos fail to develop early on, Cabot says. Using the domestic pig as its model, his lab focuses on trying to understand why. He specifically investigates how an embryo regulates the structure of its DNA – how genes are turned on and turned off at key times during development. His work has potential application in both production agriculture and biomedicine.
Developmental failure is a serious economic issue in agriculture, Cabot explains: “We do lose a lot of embryos across species, which is unrealized economic potential in production settings.” Figuring out the processes that contribute to those losses, and then learning how to circumvent the negative effects of housing embryos in the lab, could increase efficiency of reproduction. The research can also lead to biomedical models to study human disease, he adds.
ADDING CLASSROOM TO LAB
The junior/senior-level course that Cabot teaches in reproductive physiology covers all aspects of reproduction in mammals. “I like the mix of research and teaching,” he says. “I like the research because discovering something that no one has discovered before is exciting. In teaching, you’re sharing what you already know. It’s nice to see the students become engaged and grasp the links to basic science.” When he’s not peering into a microscope, Cabot spends his time “hanging out at home and doing stuff around the house.” A fourth-grader and a seventh-grader keep the family busy with swim lessons, rock-climbing and Saturday soccer games.