Happy birthday, Gregor Mendel!

I’ve had stuff happening in my life that’s kept me from posting here, but I can’t fail to mention to you all that today, July 20, is the anniversary of the birth of Gregor Mendel, regarded as the founder of modern genetics. This is due to his 1865 paper on the mode of inheritance.

In 1865, people had not yet isolated DNA or was sure what a gene was or had done any of the fabulous work that today most students learn at a young age (at least, here in the US). Nobody was entirely sure how kids could be born who looked like their parents. Mendel’s great insight was that there were units of information that were passed from parents to kids, and that it was the relationship between those units that showed up in how the kids looked.

The way we talk about this now is that some traits/qualities/features come in multiple “flavors” (alleles) – if one parent passes on a “dominant” allele and the other parent passes on a “recessive” allele, the offspring will resemble the first parent for that trait. Dominance here means, essentially, that even if both alleles of that gene are being used to make proteins, the dominant one is the only one that you can see doing something. It kind of wins a biochemical war. And this is just the one early step into what we’ve learned of the wonderful world of genetics…

Gregor Mendel
Picture of Gregor Mendel, courtesy of NIH, via Wikimedia Commons

Mendel’s story is one that I am still learning. I am currently reading Mendel’s Principles of Heredity, “coauthored” by the geneticist William Bateson and Gregor Mendel. Who was dead at the time, but Bateson included some of Mendel’s work in his book, so he gets authorship credit. So far, it’s pretty fabulous, although it’s definitely the kind of book that is written for scientists, since there are chapters basically listing experiments that support Mendel’s ideas.

Many high school and college students get introduced to Mendel’s work with peas as though it were nothing controversial, and I have to say that there might be a little controversy, but it is only sort of important. If you haven’t heard about this, the short version is that either Mendel or one of the gardeners working with him manipulated the peas to get the perfect numbers that students are told provided Mendel with his great insight. Here’s why that matters: I don’t approve of scientific fraud, and while I’m not sure whether any was committed here, if it was, we need to be honest about that. Here’s why that doesn’t matter: math, in biology, can be super messy, and even with messy numbers, you can find patterns that help you figure out what’s happening. Everything we’ve learned since 1865 has supported the main ideas that Mendel published.

Dish with peas c1820 VA 414-810a-1855
PEAS! Photo credit: Andreas Praefcke (via Wikimedia Commons)

It was clear (in hindsight) that I was going to become the evolutionary geneticist that I am today when, in ninth grade biology, I became enamored of both Mendel and Darwin. Because so few people read Mendel’s paper when it was published, it wasn’t until roughly the 1920s when scientists were able to integrate Mendel’s genetics with Darwin’s evolution, and the resulting work over time became the kind of evolutionary genetics that I do now. I’ve always felt like the fact that Mendel’s work was “lost” for so long was sad, and he’s therefore always captured a bit of my imagination.

So: happy birthday, Gregor Mendel!

Birthday cake (czech)
Photo by Chmee2, via Wikimedia Commons. It is labeled as a Czech birthday cake. Mendel was born in a place that is now part of the Czech Republic. This may be a stretch, yes, but the cake looks delicious.

Learn more about Gregor Mendel’s life and work:

Mendelweb.org (where you can read Mendel’s 1865 paper)

Mini-biography at NNDB

Scitable resource page on Mendel and genetics (via nature.com)

A summary of Mendel’s findings with some really nice illustrations, by Dennis O’Neil

History page from the NIH

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