Rich McCormick, a University of Wyoming professor of muscle biology, says the initial concern with bovine nutrition during early pregnancy came from observations in humans.

“Near the end of World War II, the Allies dropped troops beyond German lines in an effort to secure bridges over the Rhine River. It was a military disaster,” McCormick says, as many soldiers were killed or captured.

“When that operation was over, most of our troops were in German prison camps and the Germans halted food shipment into that part of the Netherlands. People were down to about 400 calories/day, eating anything possible,” he says.

The Dutch kept good medical records and, about 20 years ago, David Barker, a researcher at the UK’s University of Southhampton, followed the medical history of some of these people, McCormick says. This included women in various stages of pregnancy during this period, as well as their offspring born in 1944-45.

“Later in life, offspring developed many problems, including serious heart conditions, kidney disease and diabetes. Current research is studying what happens as a result of conditions the fetus undergoes in utero,” McCormick says.

Some problems depend on stage of pregnancy when nutritional status of the mother is adversely affected, as well as the severity of the nutritive restrictions.

“Here, we started looking at the problem of maternal obesity, especially in humans. My area of expertise is connective tissue. Maternal obesity can severely impact offspring when they grow up. Having an obese mother may be worse than having nutrient restrictions,” McCormick says.

“What interests me in the offspring of obese humans and cattle is the inflammatory response that is initiated. This has implications for connective tissue, skeletal muscles and the heart,” he explains.

“In cattle, we find deposition of connective tissue fibrosis in the heart. What I’ve worked on for most of my career is collagen cross-linking. All evidence suggests that connective tissue is impacted during early fetal programming – maybe even to the point of contributing to tougher meat or variability in meat tenderness from different animals. This is a big issue in the beef industry,” he says.