Could super-charged cattle embryos solve world food challenges?


3/4 Gyr calf with Holstein cow at Chessie Creek Farm            

Photo by Matt Wheeler

By Lauren Quinn    217-300-2435


Dr. Matthew B. Wheeler  217-333-2239

March 8, 2021

URBANA, Ill. – What if, in the next five to 10 years, we could double or triple milk and meat availability in developing countries without converting more land to cattle production? Millions of hunger-related deaths and nutritional deficiencies could be prevented, giving farmers and families a real shot at prosperity.

It’s not a pipe dream. Researchers leading the University of Illinois-Chessie Creek Farm Tropical-Adapted Cattle Project have successfully bred animals that thrive in hot climates and produce 10 times the milk of indigenous breeds.

Getting to this point took some luck, a great deal of effort, and a multi-million dollar investment, but the plan is to simply give elite tropical-adapted embryos away to developing countries. It’s all part of a commitment by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at Illinois to help feed the world by 2050.

“In many parts of the world, owning cattle means progressing out of poverty. The more cattle people have, the greater their wealth. But more cattle can impact wildlife populations, which can be important for the environment and tourism. So we thought, let’s provide the milk production of 10 cows in one,” says Matthew Wheeler, project leader and professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, part of the College of ACES.

In November 2020, Wheeler’s team witnessed the birth of the first U.S.-bred Girolando heifer and purebred Brazilian Gyr bull calves at Chessie Creek Farms in Walterboro, South Carolina. About 100 more Girolando calves are due in September.

Gyr cattle, with their humps, recurved horns, and drooping ears, are indigenous to tropical locales around the world. Unlike Holsteins, the most common and highest-producing dairy breed in the world, Gyrs don’t mind the heat, but they only produce about 15% of what Holsteins deliver in each lactation.

Girolandos bring the best of the two breeds together. Wheeler’s team breeds them by repeatedly mating Holstein and Gyr parents (and intermediate hybrids), resulting in animals that are five-eighths Holstein and three-eighths Gyr. Wheeler says his first Girolando heifer will be producing milk in 2022, and he expects yields at least 10 times that of Gyrs in their native range.

Girolandos are common in Brazil, but because of endemic disease issues, they can’t be exported to other countries.

“If you’re going to distribute them to the rest of the world, somebody had to breed them in a country that’s high health status. Why not us?” Wheeler says. “At Illinois, we’re good at dairy. Somebody’s got to be the national expert in tropical dairy. Why not be audacious?”

Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES, adds, “This project is an incredible example of how ACES research changes lives and captures the essence of what we do and why it matters. Matt and his team have shown great technical expertise, tenacity and heart in making high-yielding, tropical-adapted cattle a reality. I am extremely proud of their commitment to making a difference in the world by enhancing food security for people in need through amazing science.”

Realizing the potential of Girolandos for the developing world, Wheeler connected with the owner of Chessie Creek Farm, who shares Wheeler’s passion for improving lives through science.

The owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, “This has been an exciting and great learning experience for all involved. In the near future, we sincerely hope we will be providing high quality, low maintenance animals for developing countries. We envision that our farm will ultimately be able to produce vast quantities of embryos from these animals to feed hungry people around the world.”

In addition to building up the herd in South Carolina, Wheeler is in discussions with governments, universities, and NGOs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to plan distribution of embryos in the next year or two.

Importantly, the team will continue to support operations on the ground after embryos are delivered, providing the know-how to transfer the embryos into indigenous cattle and follow-on expertise through calving and lactation. They’ll also assist with nutrition, animal management, future breeding, and genetic selection to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the herds.

Wheeler says now that his team has worked out the process to develop Girolandos on U.S. soil, it should be fairly straightforward to improve other traits, such as muscle mass and marbling, for beef production in tropical hybrids. And in the future, with continued support, the project could expand to other animal production systems, including swine, sheep, and goats.

“The data resulting from the project, its analysis, and results will inform future decision-making not only for the project but the direction of food production for ‘Feed the Future’ initiatives to come in those developing countries,” Wheeler says. “Ultimately, we’re confident this work will result in greater food and income security where it’s needed most.”

To contribute to the project, contact the College of ACES Office of Advancement.

ACES NEWS: Illinois RapidVent Research Published


RapidVent prototype

URBANA, Ill — The design, testing, and validation of the Illinois RapidVent emergency ventilator has been published in the journal Plos One. The article, “Emergency Ventilator for COVID-19,” by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers, is the first of its kind to report such details about an emergency ventilator that was designed, prototyped, and tested at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“This article reports the development and testing of the RapidVent emergency ventilator,” said William King, professor at The Grainger College of Engineering and Carle Illinois College of Medicine, and leader of the RapidVent project. “The research shows integration of different disciplines to develop a medical device, including science-based engineering, ultra-rapid design and manufacturing, functional testing, and animal testing.”

Animal testing was performed by Matt Wheeler’s group in the Department of Animal Sciences, a crucial step in proving the device’s effectiveness.

Read more from Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Emergency Ventilator for COVID-19 Paper Published in PLoS ONE

The academic manuscript describing the development and testing of the University of Illinois Rapid Vent emergency ventilator has been published. Congratulations to all that participated in this spectacular accomplishment!

Emergency Ventilator for COVID-19


The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world in 2020 by spreading at unprecedented rates and causing tens of thousands of fatalities within a few months. The number of deaths dramatically increased in regions where the number of patients in need of hospital care exceeded the availability of care. Many COVID-19 patients experience Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a condition that can be treated with mechanical ventilation. In response to the need for mechanical ventilators, designed and tested an emergency ventilator (EV) that can control a patient’s peak inspiratory pressure (PIP) and breathing rate, while keeping a positive end expiratory pressure (PEEP). This article describes the rapid design, prototyping, and testing of the EV. The development process was enabled by rapid design iterations using additive manufacturing (AM). In the initial design phase, iterations between design, AM, and testing enabled a working prototype within one week. The designs of the 16 different components of the ventilator were locked by additively manufacturing and testing a total of 283 parts having parametrically varied dimensions. In the second stage, AM was used to produce 75 functional prototypes to support engineering evaluation and animal testing. The devices were tested over more than two million cycles. We also developed an electronic monitoring system and with automatic alarm to provide for safe operation, along with training materials and user guides. The final designs are available online under a free license. The designs have been transferred to more than 70 organizations in 15 countries. This project demonstrates the potential for ultra-fast product design, engineering, and testing of medical devices needed for COVID-19 emergency response.


King WP, Amos J, Azer M, Baker D, Bashir R, Best C, et al. (2020) Emergency ventilator for COVID-19. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0244963.

First Pure Gyr and Girolando Calves Born at Chessie Creek Farm

On November 6th, 2020 the first pure-bred Gyr calf (a bull) from pure Brazilian genetics was born at Chessie Creek Farm (CCF) in South Carolina. On November 8th, the first Girolando (5/8 Holstein X 3/8 Gyr) heifer calf was born at CCF. These calves were produced from a collaboration between the University of Illinois Genetic Improvement of Livestock Project and Chessie Creek Farm. The effort, know as the University of Illinois-Chessie Creek Farm Project, is led by Dr. Matthew B. Wheeler, Professor of Biotechnology & Reproductive Sciences in the Department of Animal Sciences (see the Project Team on the People web page).

The first pure Gyr bull calf born at Chessie Creek Farm.

These calves will play a fundamental role in producing a herd of embryo donors that will provide “Tropical-Adapted” dairy cattle genetics to the developing world. The goal of our project is to provide milk and dairy products to feed hungry children and help “Feed the World by 2050”.

The first Girolando (5/8 Holstein X 3/8 Gyr) heifer calf born at CCF.

Novel sperm imaging technique could improve cattle, human fertility

URBANA, Ill. – University of Illinois researchers have developed a new technique to determine the fertility of sperm samples in cattle.

“This work is a part of a five-year project to develop dairy cattle that are resistant to heat and diseases in tropical areas. We want to donate these cows to developing countries to increase their food production,” said Matthew B. Wheeler, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Illinois.

In order to develop these traits in cattle, the researchers need to determine which sperm samples work best for in vitro fertilization. A novel imaging approach, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, moves that effort forward.

“Although males may have sperm that are seemingly perfect, there could be morphological or DNA issues. This approach allows us to evaluate the spermatozoa and select the best in terms of fertility,” said Marcello Rubessa, a research assistant professor in Wheeler’s team.

Traditional techniques for imaging sperm samples are slow and labor intensive, and involve toxic stains. To circumvent this issue, Wheeler’s team, along with a group based in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, used label-free imaging techniques developed in the Beckman Institute’s Quantitative Light Imaging Laboratory(QLIL) to determine what parameters of the sperm make them fertile.

“We knew from the fertilization experiments which sperm samples worked. We used our imaging technique to understand what parameters were important for success,” said Mikhail Kandel, a graduate student with the QLIL. “We saw that the relationship between the size of the head and the tail of the sperm is an important parameter for fertility.”

Additionally, the researchers also improved the speed of the technique. “We used artificial intelligence to automate the process of analyzing these sperm cells,” said Yuchen He, a graduate student with QLIL.

The researchers hope to improve the speed of the technique for future analysis. “The motility of the sperm is sometimes fast. Therefore, we need to do the measurements quickly,” said Gabriel Popescu, director of theQLIL and professor in the departments of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering at Illinois.

“For many years, we have developed various techniques for label-free imaging knowing that we had to give away molecular specificity,” Popescu said. “However, our newly developed phase imaging with computational specificity brings back the molecular specificity via AI, which is harmless and works on live cells. The applications are limitless, but one that truly benefits from absence of chemical stains is assisted reproduction, as described in this collaborative study.”

The researchers hope to further develop the technique for assisted reproductive technology in humans.

The study, “Reproductive outcomes predicted by phase imaging with computational specificity of spermatozoon ultrastructure,” is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2001754117]. The study was supported by grants from the Ross Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the Integrated Grants Management System.

The Department of Animal Sciences is in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.


Pigs push forward quick solution for emergency ventilators

ACES News:

URBANA, Ill. – When Matt Wheeler got the call on a Sunday morning in March – just two days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued his first stay-at-home order – he wasn’t expecting to launch an experiment that could save countless lives.

On the call, leaders from the Illinois RapidVent team explained they had built a prototype of an emergency ventilator to address a nationwide shortage amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Laboratory testing looked promising, but the University of Illinois team wanted to understand whether the device worked in animals. Wheeler, who has built and tested lifesaving medical devices in animals, was the obvious choice to join the team.

Within a week, Wheeler wrote a protocol; obtained approval from the Illinois Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC); assembled his team, supplies, and animals; and had completed the first 24-hour tests of the ventilator. A few tweaks and a few days later, final testing was complete.

The RapidVent worked.

“If this device saves one person, we did our job. Hopefully it’ll save a whole lot more than that,” says Wheeler, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I and affiliate in the Department of Bioengineering, Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Wheeler’s team tested the device in pigs, widely recognized as the non-primate mammals most physiologically similar to humans.

“Typically the size pig we use for this kind of work is somewhere in the 200- to 250-pound range. The lungs of those pigs are about the same size as a 150-pound human,” Wheeler says.

The team – in head-to-toe personal protective equipment – humanely sedated, intubated, and monitored the pigs as the RapidVent took over the job of breathing. The first test ran for three hours, just to make sure the setup worked. The next step was testing the device on multiple pigs for a full 24-hour period. Using data from these tests, the RapidVent team made a few critical adjustments to the prototype. A few days later, a final four-hour stint rounded out the testing.

The device is designed for short-term, emergency respiratory support in hospitals when regular ventilators are not available. First responders also can hook the device to an oxygen tank to breathe for rural patients during long treks to the nearest hospital.

The product’s need and impact show little sign of slowing down. More than 50 companies have now licensed the design for the Illinois RapidVent and are exploring manufacturing options. When the time comes, Wheeler’s team and his pigs stand ready to test a commercial product.

Wheeler points to the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences’ (ACES) Imported Swine Research Lab (ISRL) for the experiment’s rapid-turnaround success.

“We could do this so fast because we were already set up with animals and a state-of-the-art biomedical unit managed by the animal sciences department in the College of ACES. Had we not had that facility there, there’s no way we could have done it as quickly as we did,” he says.

Pigs from the ISRL have helped test devices that have saved infants and rebuilt facial bones of injured soldiers, outcomes Wheeler is proud of. But his primary gig is agriculture. Broadly, he and his team work to improve production characteristics in swine and cattle using advanced tools such as gene editing, embryo transfer, and stem cell therapies.

Wheeler’s foundation in agriculture led him to leap with both feet into a project that could save human lives.

“I signed up in ag more than 40 years ago to feed people, to take care of people, and help people who needed help,” Wheeler says. “And so this is just another example of stepping up where we could help; we were ready when the call came in. That’s what we do in agriculture, and what we do in the College of ACES.”


Wheeler Lab Leads Animal Testing of the Illinois RapidVent Ventilator

The Illinois RapidVent is a working prototype of an emergency ventilator for COVID-19 patients.  Website:

Full Press Release:

The United States is expecting a severe shortage of ventilators to help people suffering from the most serious cases of COVID-19. On March 16, 2020, a team of more than 40 engineers, doctors, medical professionals, designers, and manufacturing experts from industry launched an Apollo 13-style project to help address that need.

“Our team is living the Apollo 13 movie,” said William King, the overall project leader. “We have dropped everything else to work around the clock to help respond to the COVID-19 crisis.” King is a Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering who holds appointments in The Grainger College of Engineering and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

“We have a team of brilliant and dedicated people that made something that actually works in less than one week. It’s very inspiring. We hope that we can engage even more people to work on the global response to COVID-19 as we continue to develop the prototype.”

“This Coronavirus can impact a patient’s lungs, and those who are sickest may need help breathing,” said Karen White, MD, PhD, an intensivist at Carle Foundation Hospital and a faculty member in the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. “Ventilators are necessary to help patients get more oxygen. That’s why we’re optimistic that by further developing the Illinois RapidVent we can develop more options for our sickest patients.”

Animal Studies: Animal tests were conducted in order to validate the RapidVent and to evaluate the potential for use in humans infected with COVID-19.The objective of the animal studies was to test and validate the use of a rapid prototyped emergency gas powered ventilator in pigs that is designed after an approved, commercially available ventilator for potential use in humans infected with COVID-19 virus. This animal study represented a critical testing step to build confidence in the design and ultimately support the effort to explore approval for this ventilator for human use. Since the end goal was for these ventilators to be used in human patients, pigs were of special interest because the size of their lungs is comparable to that of humans.

Animal Team Roster:

Wheeler Lab Team Collaborators:                                                                               Dr. Clifford Shipley, DVM, Dr. Marcello Rubessa, Dr. Derek J. Milner, Dr. Paula Marchioretto, DVM, Mr. Jonathan Mosley, Ms. Sarah Womack, Ms. Sierra Long, and Ms. Jacqueline Newman.

AACUP Collaborators:                                                                                                    Dr. Courtney Hayes and Dr. Nicole Herndon

First 3/4 Gyr Calves Born at Chessie Creek Farm Project

The first 3/4 Gyr calves were born at Chessie Creek Farm in South Carolina in October 2019. The University of Illinois in collaboration with Chessie Creek Farm produced the 3/4 Gyr calves by in vitro fertilization of oocytes collected by our team from 1/2 blood Holstein-Gyr donors. This generation is the next step in the production of a Girolando cattle herd in the United States. This work is supported by a generous gift from the Ross Foundation.

Dr. Wheeler Among Medical College Inaugural 100 Faculty


Dr. Wheeler, of the Department of Animal Sciences, is among the 100 prominent researchers, administrators, and medical professionals named to the faculty of the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the world’s first engineering-based college of medicine.

The medical college is a partnership between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Carle Health System, based in Urbana. The college will welcome its first class of 32 students in 2018.

View the full list of inaugural faculty at the medical college:

Holstein X Gyr F1 Hefiers Arrive at Chessie Creek Farm- Animals Will Be Used to Produce the Next Generation of Tropical Adapted Dairy Cattle

Holstein X Gyr F1 Hefiers

Friday, June 15th, 2018 marked the next step in producing more milk for people in developing tropical countries. Fifty-four Holstein X Gyr F1 heifers arrived at Chessie Creek Farm in South Carolina. The animals are part of the Chessie Creek Farm-University of Illinois Project for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock led by Dr. Matt Wheeler and his colleagues. These animals will provide the genetics for the next generation of embryo donors for this project. Early in the fall some of these animals will calve and the dams will provide the first production data that will ultimately enable the selection of superior genetics to disperse to developing countries. The partnership with Chessie Creek Farm has enabled the fast pace of progress toward the goal of disseminating tropical-adapted dairy genetics worldwide. The University of Illinois wishes to thank the owner and all the staff of Chessie Creek Farm for their support and diligent work on this project.

Matthew B. Wheeler