Michael Murtaugh

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Michael Murtaugh

The U.S. swine industry is facing a crisis of viruses that could severely hurt sales and destroy farmers who make their living raising pigs.

The main culprits are porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV), and porcine circovirus. Both are dangerous, and PRRSV is especially difficult to control. A third virus, which causes porcine epidemic diarrhea, killed eight million hogs over the past two years, according to news reports. Another, Senecavirus A, mimics a foreign animal disease known as foot-and-mouth disease, which has not been in the U.S. since 1929.

Its re-emergence “…could destroy animal agriculture as its currently practiced in the United States,” says Dr. Michael Murtaugh of the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences. “My goal is to understand antiviral immunity to infectious diseases in animals and how we can use that learning to improve and maintain the health of swine.”

Pork is no small industry in Minnesota, making Murtaugh’s research all the more important. The state ranked second in pork production in 2013, with 3,300 pig farms generating more than $7.2 billion in economic activity, according to the Minnesota Pork Producers Association.

Dr. Michael Murtaugh meets with the swine virology research laboratory team to review their laboratory notebooks and discuss research quality. Dr. Michael Murtaugh meets with the swine virology research laboratory team to review their laboratory notebooks and discuss research quality.

Murtaugh is not only a researcher, however. He teaches graduate courses, among them “Mechanisms of Animal Health and Disease,” “Mucosal Immunobiology,” and “Grantwriting.” He enjoys the classroom.

“I’m heavily involved in teaching graduate students and helping them with research opportunities,” he says.

Murtaugh’s connection to farming started when he was young. He and his family lived on a farm in north-central Ohio for five years before they moved into a nearby town.

Dr. Michael Murtaugh with his team in their lab in the Veterinary Sciences building. From left are Frances Shepherd, Kevin Gustafson, Shaoyuan Tan, Suzanne Stone, Kyra Martins, Michael Murtaugh, Cheryl Dvorak, Rachael Ceballos, Mike Rahe, and Diem Gray.Dr. Michael Murtaugh with his team in their lab in the Veterinary Sciences building. From left are Frances Shepherd, Kevin Gustafson, Shaoyuan Tan, Suzanne Stone, Kyra Martins, Michael Murtaugh, Cheryl Dvorak, Rachael Ceballos, Mike Rahe, and Diem Gray.

“My father didn’t have enough money to go into farming, which is hard to get into on your own,” he says.

He earned a biology degree from Notre Dame University and a PhD in entomology from Ohio State University before finding his way to the University of Minnesota in 1985. The idea of working for a private company never had much appeal.

“I like to be able to say I learned something new every day,” says Murtaugh. “I’m passionate about education and science, and that’s the reason I’ve stayed in a university as opposed to being in a business environment.”

When not teaching or researching, Murtaugh likes to garden at the suburban home he shares with his wife, Connie, a retired schoolteacher. His two adult children bring his four grandchildren for visits, and he talks shop with his son-in-law, a veterinarian.

Murtaugh feels lucky to have landed in the Twin Cities and at the University of Minnesota.

“A lot of my colleagues are at land grant institutions in agriculture-related fields and in places that lack the richness, diversity, and wealth of the Twin Cities and the University of Minnesota,” he says. “Being in a major city is an enormous opportunity for doing good science and medicine in an institution with biological sciences, engineering, and a lot of other resources. It’s a huge advantage.”