Gregor Mendel, Pioneering Geneticist, Born (1822)

Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was born on July 20, 1822 (died 1884).  Mendel grew on a family farm in what is now The Czech Republic.  His home was then part of Austria, so he is generally described as an “Austrian monk.”  His farm background made him familiar with plants and the way they changed over time—the basis for his experiments in heredity that have made his name an easy to answer trivia question.

Gregor Mendel

            Mendel was an excellent pupil in early schooling and, therefore, was encouraged to continue on in school.  As well as studying science, he pursued the ministry, becoming a Catholic monk in his mid-20s.  He settled into a life of study and research at the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno (now also in The Czech Republic).

            At Brno, he began experimenting with the way traits were passed down from one generation to the next.  He used pea plants as his subject, because peas were grown in the monastery’s garden and because they had several traits that were easy to observe, like color of the peas, and grew to maturity rapidly, allowing his experiments to proceed rapidly.

            He grew tens of thousands of pea plants between 1856 and 1863.  From what he observed in generation after generation of traits, he deduced that plants had both dominant and recessive traits (green peas were dominant, yellow peas recessive) and that those traits were randomly passed on to the next generation.  Today we know the mechanism—genes—that Mendel could only hypothesize.

            In 1865, the Natural Science Society of Brno published papers by Mendel that described his data and ideas.  While I’d like to write that Mendel and his results “went viral,” the opposite happened.  He was ignored.  The data and ideas were too complicated, and leading scientists doubted that what he observed was universal.

Gregor Mendel’s peas (drawing by Thomas Hunt Morgan

            Mendel had other things to worry about.  He was appointed Abbot of the monastery just a few years later, a job that absorbed all his time.  His eyesight began to fail, preventing further scientific work.  He died in 1894, at age 61.

            Despite his work being ignored, Mendel was correct.  At the start of the 20th Century, three other botanists duplicated his work and published the results again, eventually giving Mendel credit for the original discovery. 

            The understanding of how variations in nature are passed from generation to generation is crucial to the understanding of biodiversity and, hence, to conservation.   For example, we now know that a large pool of genetic diversity is essential for a species to remain adaptable to changing environmental conditions, whether caused naturally or by humans.  Scientists working to reproduce endangered species in captivity must track genetic diversity so that the adaptability of new individuals and populations isn’t compromised.

            As conservationists work to maintain endangered species or to re-introduce populations into the wild, the concepts of Mendelian genetics are always part of the strategies.  And for this reason, Gregor Mendel is as important to our history as are Charles Darwin, E. O. Wilson and Rachel Carson.

References:

Biography.com.  Gregor Mendel—Botanists, Scientist (1822-1884).  Available at:  https://www.biography.com/people/gregor-mendel-39282.  Accessed July 20, 2017.

Miko, I.  2008.  Gregor Mendel and the principles of inheritance.  Nature Education 1(1):134.  Available at:  https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/gregor-mendel-and-the-principles-of-inheritance-593.  Accessed July 20, 2017.

National Institutes of Health, Office of History.  Gregor Mendel:  The Father of Modern Genetics.  Available at:  https://history.nih.gov/exhibits/nirenberg/hs1_mendel.htm.  Accessed July 20, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

March 1
Yellowstone National Park Established (1872)
March 2
Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, Born (1904)
March 3
World Wildlife Day and Creation of CITES (1973)
March 4
Hot Springs National Park Established (1921)
March 5
Lynn Margulis, Evolutionary Biologist, Born (1938)
March 6
Martha Burton Williamson, Pioneering Malacologist, Born (1843)
March 7
Luther Burbank Born (1849)
March 8
Everett Horton Patents the Telescoping Fishing Rod (1887)
March 9
The Turbot War Begins (1995)
March 10
Cape Lookout National Seashore Established (1966)
March 11
Save the Redwoods League Founded (1918)
March 12
Charles Young, First African-American National Park Superintendent, Born (1864)
March 12
Girl Scouts Founded (1912)
March 13
National Elephant Day, Thailand
March 14
First National Wildlife Refuge Created (1903)
March 15
Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, Born (1874)
March 16
Amoco Cadiz Runs Aground (1978)
March 17
St. Patrick and Ireland’s Snakes
March 18
Nation’s First Wildlife Refuge Created (1870)
March 19
When the Swallows Return to Capistrano
March 20
“Our Common Future” Published (1987)
March 21
International Day of Forests
March 22
World Water Day
March 23
Sitka National Historical Park Created (1910)
March 24
John Wesley Powell, Western Explorer, Born (1834)
March 25
Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, Born (1914)
March 26
Marjorie Harris Carr, Pioneering Florida Conservationist, Born (1915)
March 27
Trans-Alaska Pipeline Begun (1975)
March 28
Joseph Bazalgette, London’s Sewer King, Born (1819)
March 29
Niagara Falls Stops Flowing (1848)
March 30
The United States Buys Alaska (1867)
March 31
Al Gore, Environmental Activist and U.S. Vice President, Born (1948)
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