Ensuring food security in the tropics through livestock genetic improvement is goal of symposium

May 2, 2023

by Leslie Myrick 

faculty and students at a poster session

Animal scientists, economists, and colleagues from the humanities and other fields met on the University of Illinois campus in April to focus on livestock in the tropics and its role in food security. 

The event marked the Seventh Annual International Food Security Symposium at Illinois facilitated by the Office of International Programs (OIP) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). 

Each year the OIP selects a partner to work with to explore in depth a specific aspect of international food security. This year’s symposium was co-hosted by the Department of Animal Sciences and the Center for African Studies. Ten presentations spanned a wide range of topics built around the theme of “Ensuring Food Security in the Tropics Through Livestock Genetic Improvement.”

View the recorded presentations here. 

View the symposium program and speaker bios here. 

Students, faculty, and staff as well as visitors from other universities and around the world presented and listened, asked questions, learned from each other, and made plans to work together moving forward. 

Additionally, a poster presentation showcased ongoing research work led by students in the College of ACES. 

The true value of the symposium will be ongoing as the connections made will foster future work to meet the challenges presented. 

“We’ve already started talking about future collaborations with the speakers and others,” noted Crystal Allen, who along with Matt Wheeler led the symposium team from the Department of Animal Sciences. 

Wheeler closed the symposium by telling a story of being in on a farm in Northeastern Brazil where the 16,000 cattle ate only cactus (cut into small pieces) and were milked by hand every day. Using this story as just one example, Wheeler said, “Dairy farmers will find a way. And we can all be involved in dairy finding a way. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be tomorrow. But we can do it if we want to and can work together.”  

Wheeler Lab Partners with Statz Bros. Dairy to Produce Jersey X Gyr Embryos for Tropical-Adapted Dairy Pilot Project in Tanzania

Statz Bros. Dairy Sun Prairie, WI

In late-December 2022, the Wheeler Lab went to Statz Bros. Dairy to aspirate 24 Jersey donors to collect oocytes. The oocytes were inseminated with Gyr semen to produce the embryos for the Tanzania Pilot Project. The oocyte collection was coordinated by Helix AgriSystems and Paramount Calves. The aspirations were performed by Dr. Andre Dayan of Dayan, LLC and the embryo production was overseen by Dr. Nate Dorshorst of GenOvations.

In early 2023, approximately 80 embryos will be transported and transferred to indigenous recipient cattle. The Tanzanian research partners include the National Ranching Company and the Tanzanian Livestock Research Institute. The Tanzanian collaboration is coordinated by Dr. Moses Neselle of FAO. Prior to and during the pilot project Tanzanian scientists, students and farm managers will be educated and trained in the basics of assisted reproduction, nutritional management and husbandry of embryo transfer calves. This knowledge transfer is an integral part of the pilot project and for future sustainability of the technology and the improved dairy genetics.

Department of Animal Sciences faculty/staff involved in this pilot project and education/training include Dr. Crystal Allen, Dr. Phil Cardoso, Dr. Paula Marchioretto, Dr. Derek Milner, Dr. Chanaka Rabel, Ms. Beth Bangert, Mr. Kenneth Wilson and Dr. Wheeler. Collaborators include Dr. Luiz Nasser of BORN Biotechnologies, Panama City Panama; Dr. Brad Lindsey of Ovitra Biotechnologies, Midway, TX; Mr. John Hull of JHGenetics, Alajuela, Costa Rica; Mr. Cavan Sullivan of Helix AgriSystems, Darlington, WI; Mr. Ken Norgard of Paramount Calves, Darlington, WI; Dr. Andre Dayan of Dayan, LLC, College Station, TX; and Dr. Nate Dorshorst of GenOvations, Lodi, WI.

See the video of the oocyte collection at Statz Bros. Dairy:


Alumni Interview: Kevin Jackson

The former Illini running back turned scientist on his mentor Matt Wheeler, football concussions and helping athletes transition from sports to “real life”

“But for millions of young people, high school or college sports are the end of the line. After that, you need a new identity.” Kevin Jackson, ’95 ACES, MS ’99 ACES, PHD ’03 ACES (Image by Nathan Morgan)

The former Illini running back turned scientist on his mentor Matt Wheeler, football concussions and helping athletes transition from sports to “real life” As told to Kevin Cook

When I arrived at Illinois in 1990, a kid out of a tough neighborhood south of Chicago, I had no idea I’d become a research scientist. I was a football player who felt blessed to join the Big Ten champions, a team captained by future NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, ’92 ENG, with a couple of other running backs ahead of me on the depth chart: Howard Griffith, ’91 LAS, who would go on to an eight-year NFL career, and Kameno Bell, ’92 LAS, MD ’01 UIC, who went on to be the New York Giants’ team doctor.

More than 30 years later, I’m proud to be part of Illini football history: 928 all-purpose yards, including a 125-yard game against Purdue and a 47-yard run against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium. That play had me flashing back to childhood games of tag—I covered almost half the field with 11 guys chasing me!

But my football days ended when I graduated. Like the vast majority of college players, I wasn’t an NFL prospect.

I was luckier than that.

Thanks to biotechnology professor Matt Wheeler, who became my mentor, I wound up spending more time in labs than I ever spent on the football field. With his help, I landed a $4,000 research grant from Pfizer—an enormous sum for a kid with no money or connections outside the University. I spent a summer learning how to freeze pig embryos, and went on from there to a study of endometriosis on baboons. 

That led in turn to my current work at PPD Inc., part of Thermo Fisher Scientific, a global leader in testing new drugs that could eventually save millions of human lives. I like to say that with a boost from Professor Wheeler, I’ve gone from pigskin to pigs to primates to people to PPD!

One track of my career had to do with an issue you’ve heard about: football concussions. I was struck by the fact that concussion symptoms and heat stroke symptoms are similar—wooziness, nausea, blurred vision—and the two often happen at the same time. Does heat make concussions worse? Could we help concussed athletes recover by keeping their brains from overheating? With neurosurgeon Dr. Huan Wang and Bill Elkins in the lead, I helped develop a head-and-neck cooling device that helps cool the brain. I’ve since stepped away from that research to focus on cancer studies, but I think it holds promise for a younger generation of athletes who share my love of the game.

With inspiration from [my mother and sister], plus hard work and help from friends and colleagues like Matt Wheeler—my mentor till the day I die—I’ve made the transition from football player to scientist. Here’s hoping a new generation of U of I athletes go on to careers they love as much as I love mine.

Meanwhile, I’d like to see the U of I continue being a leader in sports science. We’ve got two MRI scanners at the Beckman Institute. Why not use them to test athletes when they arrive on campus, when they leave, and later in life? There would be costs involved—diagnostic MRIs cost $1,000 and up—but such a program might be worth the expense. 

The first tests would establish a baseline; the others would provide data on how different sports can affect players’ brains and bodies. Athletes’ long-term health may be sports science’s next frontier. Research like that might save careers or even lives in the long-run.

And that includes their mental well-being. If today’s young athletes are like me—and I know many who are—they reach college thinking of themselves mostly in terms of their sports. “I’m a gymnast. I’m a goalie. I’m a football player.” That’s how I thought of myself from the age of eight or nine to the end of my college career. But for millions of young people, high school or college sports are the end of the line. After that, you need a new identity.

I’ve been working with Associate Athletic Director Randy Ballard on ways to help athletes make the transition from sports to “real life.” It’s a fascinating subject and another way to give something back to the University that changed my life.

My passion for science dates back even further—to my boyhood dream of helping my mother and sister. Both of them were diabetic and died from complications of the disease. My current work isn’t directly related to diabetes, but my career path sure is.

With inspiration from them, plus hard work and help from friends and colleagues like Matt Wheeler—my mentor till the day I die—I’ve made the transition from football player to scientist. Here’s hoping a new generation of U of I athletes go on to careers they love as much as I love mine.

As told to Kevin Cook


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

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. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244963

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: https://aces.illinois.edu/news/pigs-push-forward-quick-solution-emergency-ventilators

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.”