Tim Johnson

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Tim Johnson

It’s amazing that Dr. Tim Johnson can sleep at night. For the past 16 years, he’s been studying how various strains of bacteria develop into superbugs resistant to all or nearly all antibiotics. One of today’s hottest areas of global research, growing antibiotic resistance, recently prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to release a list of “priority pathogens” responsible for killing millions each year. Johnson is an expert on one of those pathogens, but his expertise doesn’t end in the lab.

As a bench, or basic, researcher, Johnson intimately understands the process by which microorganisms transfer their resistance to certain antibiotics to other microorganisms and the resulting harm that can result. His extensive work on the genetics of antibiotic resistance helped vault the college’s Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences into one of the strongest in the United States, spurred Johnson into becoming one of the country’s top applied researchers in poultry disease, and is helping establish the College of Veterinary Medicine as a global leader in turkey research.

“I live in two worlds,” Johnson says. “I have the world of antibiotic resistance, and I also have the world of alternatives to antibiotic resistance.” As an applied researcher, Johnson develops solutions to real-world problems involving bacteria and viruses that affect animal agriculture, particularly poultry.

Dr. Tim Johnson with young turkeys at the Poultry Teaching and Research Facility on the St. Paul campus.Dr. Tim Johnson with young turkeys at the Poultry Teaching and Research Facility on the St. Paul campus.

Johnson grew up in Kimball, Minnesota, a rural agricultural community about 90 miles west of the Twin Cities, where his father owned and operated a construction company.

“That shaped who I am, my understanding that a world exists outside the urban lifestyle, and it fueled my interest in animal agriculture,” he says. Working summers for his father also taught him the value of hard work and convinced him he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life pouring concrete.

As an undergraduate, Johnson wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but a North Dakota State University class in pathogenic microbiology at changed that.

“I fell in love with the world of microorganisms and switched to a microbiology major,” he recalls. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 2000, Johnson was still undecided about his career until he had a conversation with a professor who was running a poultry lab studying E. coli. That conversation convinced Johnson to apply to a doctorate program in molecular pathogenesis and provided him with a job for the next eight years, working in the professor’s lab studying the genomics of bacteria and antibiotic resistance. In 2007, Johnson accepted a position as an assistant professor in microbiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Up to that point, I had never even been on a commercial poultry farm,” he recalls. “My knowledge was all from textbooks.”

As Johnson started to conduct on-farm research with the state’s poultry farms, he quickly learned first-hand about the challenges they faced.

“While I have always liked doing basic research, I realized I really enjoyed doing research that had an impact on people, particularly people like those I grew up with—rural Minnesotans,” he says.

About the time Johnson was getting his boots dirty, the college was developing the Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center (MCROC), a regional hub for collaborative research and education in Willmar, Minnesota.

While I have always liked doing basic research, I realized I really enjoyed doing research that had an impact on people, particularly people like those I grew up with—rural Minnesotans.

“I made a big shift,” Johnson says. “I moved to Cold Spring with my wife and two kids. It was a blind jump. Today, I’m out there two days a week working with local poultry veterinarians, poultry companies, poultry equipment and vaccine manufacturers, and poultry farms to solve real-world problems.”

Now the director of research and development for MCROC, Johnson is working on a collaborative effort with Minnesota turkey farms and a Minnesota turkey company to find a turkey-specific probiotic alternative to low-dose antibiotics, which are being phased out of poultry feed.

“We are also trying to develop the next generation of tools to diagnose disease, understand pathogen ecology, and predict what is coming next,” he says.

As a basic researcher, Johnson continues to operate a full-time research laboratory on the St. Paul Campus, where he spends three days a week. He has a long-term, ongoing collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health studying carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, a WHO top-priority pathogen, and is collaborating with the Minneapolis VA Health Care System on a study of the E. coli superbug, a bacteria that within 15 years has become the most dominant cause of urinary tract infections in the world.

“When it is all said and done, I’d like to look back at my career and be able to say it had an impact on society,” says Johnson. “I hope that some of these small pieces of applied research that we are doing now will help Minnesota poultry farms remain competitive and sustainable.”