Gregor Mendel, also known as the ‘father of genetics’, was a pioneer in the scientific area of genetics and inheritance. Born in the 19th century, the Austrian monk famously conducted experiments on pea plants, studying the inheritance of traits such as flower colour and plant height.
Although his work set important foundations for modern genetics, medicine and scientific study techniques, Mendel’s experiments largely went unnoticed by the scientific community during his lifetime. It was only after his death in 1884 that his work was rediscovered and recognised for the significance that it deserved.
Although Gregor Mendel came from a poor farming background, he excelled academically at a young age, taking a keen interest in the areas of mathematics and natural sciences. In 1840 he entered the University of Olomouc in what is now the Czech Republic, to study philosophy, physics and mathematics. After completing his studies, Mendel was later admitted to the Augustian Monastery of St Thomas to join the monkhood at the age of 21. Here he continued his scientific studies, taking advantage of the monastery’s garden and library facilities to conduct his experiments.
Mendel’s now famous pea plant experiments took place between 1856-1863. He preferred the plants because they were easy to grow, had easily distinguishable characteristics and their fertilisation could be easily controlled. He followed the inheritance of seven traits, with each trait having two distinct forms. Mendel was able to isolate pure breeding plants by carefully allowing them to self-pollinate for generations before selecting those that consistently demonstrated one of the traits he had selected.
Gregor Mendel believed his experiments would show that the pea plants’ traits would blend together, creating entirely new characteristics. He cross-bred his pure lines of plants and recorded the traits of the first-generation offspring. He was surprised to find that their traits resembled only one of the parents and did not ‘blend’; purple and white flowers produced purple offspring, not pink as he had first thought. This led Mendel to coin the terms dominant and recessive, suggesting that one allele (gene variant) will be dominant over another and determine the phenotype (physical appearance) of the offspring.
Mendel went on to define the principle of segregation, demonstrating that individual organisms hold two copies of each allele which become separated once gametes are formed (sperm and egg development); the gametes from both parents combine during fertilisation to create a new pair of alleles. Gregor also concluded that the inheritance of a trait is independent of other traits, meaning the alleles for different genes are arranged into gametes separately, leading to new combinations of alleles in parent offspring.
Gregor Mendel was the first scientist to use statistical methods to analyse and document heredity inheritance, introducing methodical hypothesis testing techniques to the field of biology. His principles show us how genetic traits are inherited and passed down from one generation to the next. They also showed how genetic variation is achieved, forming the foundation for modern genetic techniques and applications globally.
Mendel’s discoveries have had important implications within the areas of agricultural and food production. Using theory of inheritance, farmers can selectively breed crops that exhibit desirable traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and higher yields, helping to increase agricultural activity and meet demand from global population increases.
Within the field of medicine, single gene disorders such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis can be traced through family relatives using Mendel’s studies of inheritance patterns. Pedigree analysis can be used to provide information on where the disease related genes are located, while telling us if the disease phenotype is dominant or recessive.
Want to know more about how the study of genetics is changing our world? Our flexible Biology IGCSE or A-level accredited distance learning courses cover a variety of modules including ‘inheritance’ and ‘modern genetics’. Get in touch with us today to find out more.