CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 September 2018

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Father Mendel the father of genetics

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago in 1866, Father Gregory Mendel published an article entitled, Experiments with Plant Hybrids, in a scientific journal in the city of Brno (Brünn in German), which today is in the Czech Republic.

He sent copies of his research to a number of prominent naturalist scholars across Europe, including Charles Darwin. Darwin did not read Mendel’s paper; if he had it would have helped him understand how his own theory of evolution worked.

After leaving high school, Mendel studied physics and mathematics at the University of Olomouc. Life at the university was not easy for the young Mendel. There were major financial problems in paying his tuition, since his parents were not well-off.

Mendel himself often gave tuition classes to other students to help pay his university fees.

While attending the university, he made friends with two professors. One was a physicist called Friendrich Franz and the other was Johann Karl Nestler, whose area of competence was agricultural biology and heredity.

In 1844, against the wishes of his father who expected him to take over the family farm, Mendel joined the Augustinians at St. Thomas Monastery in Brno. On entering religious life he was given the name Gregory.

The monastery was an ideal place for Mendel to develop his mind. He was exposed to the research and teaching of the staff, and also had access to the monastery’s extensive library and experimental facilities.

In 1851, he went to the University of Vienna to further his studies. At Vienna, he was impressed by the work of Christian Doppler, who was the professor of physics.

Mendel returned to his abbey in 1853 and began teaching various subjects, principally physics. In 1856 he took the exam to become a certified teacher, but for the second time he failed the oral part of the exam.

I am sure that not everyone on the staff at the monastery of St. Thomas was as enthusiastic about the experiments which Mendel was conducting on peas.

It is estimated that during the years of his experimentation, Mendel dealt with 28,000 plants. But Abbot Franz Cyril encouraged Father Mendel in his research.

He developed a theory of organic inheritance from his work on crossing garden peas, which exhibited different characteristics—like variations in height or the presence or absence of colour in the flower, white or purple.

Luckily, he used traits for which a single gene had a major effect. In his experiments he crossed peas with short stalks with those that had long ones.

Another characteristic was the colour of the pea flower. One had white flowers and the other purple. 

Many botanists at the time, including Darwin, believed that crossing long and short stalks would produce medium size ones; or if you crossed peas with white flowers with peas with purple flowers the result would be light purple flowers.

But through his experiments, Father Mendel discovered that this was not the case. When he crossed purple-flowered peas (BB) with white-flowered peas (bb), every plant in the next generation had only purple flowers (Bb).

Next, when these purple-flowered plants (Bb) were crossed with one-another to create a second-generation of plants, some white flowered plants appeared again (bb).

So Father Mendel deduced that the purple-flowered plants still had the ability or trait (now called genes) to make white flowers and that the number of white flowers was predictable.

Seventy-five per cent of the second-generation of plants had purple flowers, while 25 per cent had white flowers. He called the purple trait dominant and the white trait recessive.

Later scientists discovered that Father Mendel’s laws of genetics apply not only to peas, but to plants and animals, including humankind.

Father Mendel published the results of his work in a journal of the Brno Nature Research Society. 

As we have seen above, he sent copies of his paper to prominent scientists, but no one at the time recognised the importance of his insight into the laws of hereditary.

In 1868, Father Mendel was elected abbot of the monastery. During the rest of his life, his duties as abbot and failing eyesight kept him from continuing his scientific work.

Father Gregory Mendel died on 6 January 1884 at the age of 61. He was laid to rest in the monastery’s burial plot and his funeral was well attended. His work, however, was still largely unknown.

Thirty-four years after he published his 1866 paper, a number of scholars, among them Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns, independently verified his findings.

Today, Gregory Mendel is known as the father of genetics. This science has made extraordinary advances in the past 70 years.



            • Father Sean McDonagh