Ione Hunt von Herbing
Ione Hunt von Herbing, associate professor of biological sciences and director of UNT's Marine Conservation and Aquatic Physiology Laboratory, enjoys working with "friends."
The friends she is referring to, in this case, are "good" bacteria called probiotics -- living microflora that contribute to health, such as the bacteria found in the intestines of humans and other animals, and in foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi and kombucha tea. She calls them friends because she believes they can help address global issues concerning the health of humans and the environment.
Hunt von Herbing, a member of the UNT's Developmental Integrative Biology research cluster, is currently researching the benefits of using probiotics instead of antibiotics in feed given to farm-raised fish. Probiotics bring viable solutions as a sustainable food source that could reduce dependence on antibiotics, with downstream benefits for humans and the environment.
Tilapia, American consumers' preferred farmed fish, is among the fish species she raises. She feeds them a probiotic strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus, which cultivates healthy flora in the fish. When fed probiotics, the tilapia show significantly improved health with growth rates 26 percent higher than those raised on antibiotics. The mortality rate also is lower compared to fish grown on antibiotics. Faster growth and lower mortality mean that more fish can be sold to market sooner but without the antibiotic issues that accrue.
Hunt von Herbing says that one of the biggest problems in the factory-farming food industry for both agriculture and aquaculture -- whether raising cows, chickens, pigs or fish -- is the addition of prophylactic antibiotics in the daily feed.
"Anytime you create and foster a synthetic product there is the potential for disrupting natural ecosystems," she says. "Antibiotics are polluting the water table, rivers and oceans. They create huge problems for freshwater and marine environments, human health, and the development of fish and other wildlife -- hence my dedication to finding alternatives that farmers can use to grow their animals."
Hunt von Herbing also is partnering with aquaculture farmers in Texas and with rainbow trout farmers in Mexico to examine the benefits of using probiotic feed. Addressing use of antibiotics at the Mexican trout hatchery, located 10,000 feet above sea level in the town of Amanalco, is critical because the watershed supplies 20 percent of the drinking water for Mexico City.
"There is a huge need to investigate probiotics," Hunt von Herbing says. "Not only are they a safer alternative to antibiotics, they are cheap compared to feed, reduce capital costs, and improve growth rates. The overall cost benefit ratios may give fish farmers compelling reason to switch."
In addition to studying how fish develop in antibiotic aquatic versus natural environments, Hunt von Herbing has more than 30 years of experience as an aquatic developmental physiologist.