Peter Thompson

Above, Peter Thompson, Ph.D., a participant in the USDA ARS Research Participation Program, loads parasite DNA isolated from wild boars into a DNA sequencer. His research on parasites is intended to help mitigate the risks of foodborne illness to consumers.

For Peter Thompson, Ph.D., and other scientists in the Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, the average American’s annual consumption of more than 200 pounds of meat serves as both research motivation and federal agency alarm. 

After all, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has helped make meat products safer than ever before for human consumption, the risk of parasites still lingers, mainly in undercooked or raw meats favored by millions of Americans. Profiling these parasites is one way to understand and communicate the risk of contamination to the consumer.

“We seek to understand the risks of humans acquiring a parasitic disease from the food that they eat, and we help to manage those risks through evidence-based interventions. We also aim to identify parasites that may enter the food supply in the future,” said Thompson, a participant in the ORISE-administered USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Research Participation Program. “Our research here is meant to ensure we have the safest food supply in the world.” 

The USDA ARS Research Participation Program provides opportunities for students, postgraduates, established scientists and faculty to participate in programs, projects and activities at ARS-designated facilities to help ARS solve agricultural problems of high national priority.

Prior to the program, Thompson studied the population genetics of oyster parasites and investigated the environmental impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill via a fellowship with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Also, he worked as a freelance writer for the pop culture magazine Nerd Nite: The Magazine. A graduate of the University of Maryland with a doctoral degree in behavior, ecology, evolution and systematics, Thompson applied to the USDA ARS program to broaden his research skills and professional network.

At the lab, most of Thompson’s time is spent at a computer doing bioinformatics. He analyzes DNA sequences from parasitic roundworms called Trichinella and single-celled parasites called Toxoplasma gondii. While cases of trichinellosis in the United States have decreased from several hundred per year in the mid-1900s to only a handful these days, cases of toxoplasmosis remain high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers toxoplasmosis a leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness.

“The data I generate from parasite genome sequences will be used to compare the spread of these parasites in natural and agricultural systems, design tools for monitoring outbreaks, and serve as a resource for identification of genes connected to changes in the severity of disease associated with these parasites,” said Thompson. He is mentored by Benjamin M. Rosenthal, S.D., the research leader of the Animal Parasitic Diseases Lab. 

Among his accomplishments at USDA, Thompson has published the most complete Trichinella genome to date. He has also published papers in the journals Infection, Genetics, and Evolution; Parasitology; and Parasitology Research.

Thompson enjoys the independent nature of his assignment because it allowed him to become a specialist in genomics and collaborate with peers on a diverse range of interests, from molecular biology and immunology to evolution and parasitic adaptation to changing climates.

“I have been given considerable leeway to pursue my own research interests,” he said. “The appointment has served as an incredible opportunity to become a better writer and critical thinker, and it has solidified my decision to pursue a federal research career. I would recommend the program to others.”

The USDA Agricultural Research Service Research Participation Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed by ORAU under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.