For more than 75 years, Peoria's AG Lab has made an impact on lives with 'wonderful discoveries'
PEORIA -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, formerly named the Northern Regional Research Laboratory, has been headquartered in Peoria for 78 years.
Wait, the what?
Well, it's best known as The AG Lab, the federal scientific research operation that is the work home of 80 Ph.D. scientists and 120 support staff. Created under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, The AG Lab opened in 1940 as one of four regional research centers created as the United States was emerging from the Depression. World War II was on the horizon.
"All across this country there were large stockpiles of excess agricultural commodities," former AG Lab director Paul Sebesta said in 2015. "The chore was to take those excess commodities and create value-added products out of them to support the rural economy."
The two commodities the Peoria center was to work on were corn and wheat.
"It was because of the industry that was here and because of the agriculture commodities that were here and because of its proximity to the Great Lakes. This was in the heart of agriculture territory," Sebesta said.
Peoria was the whiskey capital of the world because of the Hiram Walker Distilleries, and the first research initiatives were to improve fermentation technologies. And that led to the Peoria AG Lab earning its first fame from penicillin, which Alexander Fleming had discovered in Britain.
England was being bombed regularly and couldn't build a laboratory to produce the penicillin. Britain contacted the USDA and was told of Peoria's fermentation technologies. The British brought scientists and the penicillin strain to Peoria and started doing research.
"The original penicillin strain could not be cultured in large amounts," Sebesta said. "They had to do a worldwide search for penicillin cultures, so Army Air Corps pilots were instructed that anywhere they landed, anywhere in the world on a dirt field, they were to scoop up a sample of dirt and send it to Peoria. And we evaluated all those samples for penicillin trying to find samples of penicillin that would grow rapidly because we knew that we needed huge doses of it, and it was hard to grow in the standard culture. It was purely by luck that a lady brought in a cantaloupe to the lab and there was a strain on there that could be rapidly cultured. The townspeople knew about the search (for penicillin cultures) and this woman, whose name was lost to history, got a moldy cantaloupe out of a Peoria grocery store."
What did the scientists do with the moldy cantaloupe? They mutated the strain so it would grow faster and then developed the tanks and the medium onto which it would grow -- corn steep liquor from the fermentation production of ethanol.
By June 1944, in time for the D-Day invasion, there were suitable quantities of penicillin to support the Normandy Invasion.
The AG Lab also developed the super-absorbent starch material used in Huggies diapers and Depends garments. It's also used in operating rooms and anywhere you need to soak up large amounts of fluid because it can soak up to 1,000 times its weight in moisture.
"Another product that was developed is something that you eat every day if you have a salad," Sebesta said. "The product that is in every salad dressing is xanthan gum and that came from this lab as well."
The lab also developed a blood plasma extender called dextran that was important in the Korean War, he said.
And the AG Lab has one of the largest publicly available collections of microbes in the world -- about 90,000 yeasts, bacteria, fungi, etc. -- that started from the penicillin work.
"We make these microbes available free of charge to any scientific organization or scientist around the world," said Sebesta.
What does the future look like for the AG Lab?
"We're not going to run out of people's problems to solve so we better have very good solutions to those problems," Sebesta said in 2015. "Every day when I come into this building and come up the front steps I put my hand on that door and I think, 'I wonder what wonderful discoveries are we going to make here today.'"
• Scott Hilyard of the Peoria Journal Star can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at dailyherald.com/topics/Illinois-Bicentennial/.
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