Gregor Mendel

138

Gregor Mendel : biography

20 July 1822 – 6 January 1884

Life after the pea experiments

After completing his work with peas, Mendel turned to experimenting with honeybees to extend his work to animals. He produced a hybrid strain (so vicious they were destroyed) but failed to generate a clear picture of their heredity because of the difficulties in controlling mating behaviours of queen bees. He also described novel plant species, and these are denoted with the botanical author abbreviation "Mendel".

After he was elevated as abbot in 1868, his scientific work largely ended, as Mendel became consumed with his increased administrative responsibilities, especially a dispute with the civil government over their attempt to impose special taxes on religious institutions. Mendel died on January 6, 1884, at the age of 61, in Brno, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic), from chronic nephritis. Czech composer Leoš Janáček played the organ at his funeral. After his death, the succeeding abbot burned all papers in Mendel’s collection, to mark an end to the disputes over taxation.

Rediscovery of Mendel’s work

Dominant and recessive phenotypes. (1) Parental generation. (2) F1 generation. (3) F2 generation. Mendel’s work was rejected at first, and was not widely accepted until after he died. During his own lifetime, most biologists held the idea that all characteristics were passed to the next generation through blending inheritance, in which the traits from each parent are averaged together. Instances of this phenomenon are now explained by the action of multiple genes with quantitative effects. Charles Darwin tried unsuccessfully to explain inheritance through a theory of pangenesis. It was not until the early 20th century that the importance of Mendel’s ideas was realized.

By 1900, research aimed at finding a successful theory of discontinuous inheritance rather than blending inheritance led to independent duplication of his work by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns, and the rediscovery of Mendel’s writings and laws. Both acknowledged Mendel’s priority, and it is thought probable that de Vries did not understand the results he had found until after reading Mendel. Though Erich von Tschermak was originally also credited with rediscovery, this is no longer accepted because he did not understand Mendel’s laws. Though de Vries later lost interest in Mendelism, other biologists started to establish genetics as a science.

Mendel’s results were quickly replicated, and genetic linkage quickly worked out. Biologists flocked to the theory; even though it was not yet applicable to many phenomena, it sought to give a genotypic understanding of heredity which they felt was lacking in previous studies of heredity which focused on phenotypic approaches. Most prominent of these latter approaches was the biometric school of Karl Pearson and W.F.R. Weldon, which was based heavily on statistical studies of phenotype variation. The strongest opposition to this school came from William Bateson, who perhaps did the most in the early days of publicising the benefits of Mendel’s theory (the word "genetics", and much of the discipline’s other terminology, originated with Bateson). This debate between the biometricians and the Mendelians was extremely vigorous in the first two decades of the twentieth century, with the biometricians claiming statistical and mathematical rigor, whereas the Mendelians claimed a better understanding of biology.

In the end, the two approaches were combined, especially by work conducted by R. A. Fisher as early as 1918. The combination, in the 1930s and 1940s, of Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s theory of natural selection resulted in the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology.

Controversy

Mendel’s experimental results have later been the object of considerable dispute. Fisher analyzed the results of the F2 (second filial) ratio and found them to be implausibly close to the exact ratio of 3 to 1.Fisher, R. A. (1936). Has Mendel’s work been rediscovered? Annals of Science 1:115–137. Reproduction of his experiments has demonstrated the validity of his hypothesis—but, the results have continued to be a mystery for many, though it is often cited as an example of confirmation bias. This might arise if he detected an approximate 3 to 1 ratio early in his experiments with a small sample size, and continued collecting more data until the results conformed more nearly to an exact ratio. It is sometimes suggested that he may have censored his results, and that his seven traits each occur on a separate chromosome pair, an extremely unlikely occurrence if they were chosen at random. In fact, the genes Mendel studied occurred in only four linkage groups, and only one gene pair (out of 21 possible) is close enough to show deviation from independent assortment; this is not a pair that Mendel studied. Some recent researchers have suggested that Fisher’s criticisms of Mendel’s work may have been exaggerated.