CHARLES DARWIN (1809- 82)

1859 – England

‘All present day species have evolved from simpler forms of life through a process of natural selection’

Portrait of Charles Darwin ©

Organisms have changed over time and the ones living today are different from the ones that lived in the past. Furthermore, many organisms that once lived are now extinct.

The orthodox view was that of the Creationists. According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, ‘God created every living creature that moves….’. Against this background, thinkers such as French naturalist Jean-Baptist Lamarck developed a picture of how species evolved from single-celled organisms.

Darwin’s breakthrough was to work out what evolution is and how it happens. His insight was to focus on individuals, not species and to show how individuals evolve by natural selection. The mechanism explained how all species evolved to become well suited to their environment. Later commentators have characterized this idea as ‘survival of the fittest,’ but this was never a phrase that Darwin himself used.

Darwin was influenced by CHARLES LYELL’s newly published book ‘Principles of Geology’, showing how landscapes had evolved gradually through long cycles of erosion and upheaval and by ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ written in 1798 by THOMAS MALTHUS.

The publication of Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859 generated social and political debate that continues to this day. Darwin did not discuss the evolution of humans in this book.
In ‘The Descent of Man’, published in 1871, he presented his explanation of how his theory of evolution applied to the idea that humans evolved from apes. In modern form the theory contains the following ideas:

  • members of a species vary in form and behaviour and some of this variation has an inherited basis

  • every species produces far more offspring than the environment can support

  • some individuals are better adapted for survival in a given environment than others

this means that there are variations within each population gene pool and individuals with most favourable variations stand a better chance of survival – the survival of the fittest.

  • the favourable characteristics show up among more individuals of the next generation

there is thus a ‘natural selection’ for those individuals whose variations make them better adapted for survival and reproduction.

  • the natural selection of strains of organisms favours the evolution of new species, through better adaptation to their environment, as a consequence of genetic change or mutation.

Knowledge of DNA has enriched the theory of evolution. The modern view is still based on the Darwinian foundation; evolution through natural selection is opportunistic and it takes place steadily.

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GREGOR MENDEL (1822- 84)

1865 – Austria

  • ‘Law of Segregation: In sexually reproducing organisms, two units of heredity control each trait. Only one of such units can be represented in a single sexually reproductive cell’

  • ‘Law of Independent Assortment: Each of a pair of contrasted traits may be combined with either of another pair’

These laws laid the foundation for the science of genetics.

The biologist Lamarck (1744-1829) had proposed a theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics and had suggested that inherited characteristics are influenced by environment. Mendel planted an atypical variety of an oriental plant next to a typical variety – the offspring retained the essential traits of their parents, which meant that the characteristics that were inherited were not influenced by the environment. This simple test led Mendel to embark on the path that would lead to the discovery of the laws of heredity.

Mendel’s aim was to discover ” a generally applicable law of the formation and development of hybrids “. He addressed this by studying the effect of cross-breeding on seven pairs of contrasting characteristics of Pisum sativum, a strain of pea.
His work on peas indicated that features of the plant; seed shape, seed colour, pod shape, pod colour, flower colour, flower position and stem length; were passed on from one generation to the next by some physical element. He realised that each characteristic of a plant was inherited independently, and that the ratios of plants exhibiting each trait could be statistically predicted.

photograph of GREGOR MENDEL ©

GREGOR MENDEL

A common assumption in Mendel’s time was that when two alternative features were combined, an average of these features would occur. For example, a tall plant and a short one would result in medium height offspring. For seven years Mendel kept an exact record of the inherited characteristics of 28,000 pea plants, taking great pains to avoid accidental cross-fertilization; then he applied mathematics to the results. These quantitative data allowed him to see statistical patterns and ratios that had eluded his predecessors.

From his analysis he found that certain characteristics of plants are due to factors passed intact from generation to generation.
Mendel observed that individual plants of the first generation of hybrids (crossbred plants) usually showed the traits of only one parent. The crossing of yellow seeded plants with green seeded ones gave rise to yellow seeds; the crossing of tall stemmed ones with short-stemmed varieties gave rise to tall-stemmed plants.

The factors determining a trait are passed on to the offspring during reproduction.

Mendel worked out that the factors for each trait are grouped together in pairs and that the offspring receives one part of a pair from each parent.

Contrary to the popular belief of the time, these factors do not merge. Any individual pea always exhibits one trait or the other, never a mixture of the two possible expressions of the trait; only one trait from each pair of factors donated by the parents would be expressed in the offspring, although there are four possible combinations of factors.
This is now described as Mendel’s law of segregation.
An offspring inherits from its parents either one trait or the other, but not both.

He decided that some factors were ‘dominant’ and some were ‘recessive’ and was able to conclude that certain expressed traits, such as yellow seeds or tall stems, were the dominant ones and that other traits, such as shortness of stem and green seeds, were recessive. It appeared that the dominant factors consumed or destroyed the recessive factors – but this could not be the case, as the second generation of hybrids exhibited both the dominant and recessive traits of their ‘grandparents’. Across a series of generations of descendants, plants did not average out to a medium, but instead inherited the original features (for example, either tallness or shortness) in consistent proportions, a ratio of 3:1, according to the dominant factor.
The 3:1 ratio would apply because the dominant factor would feature whenever it was present.

He also noted that the different pairs of factors making up the characteristics of the pea plant ( such as the pair causing flower colour, the pair causing seed shape and so on ), when crossed, occurred in all possible mathematical combinations. This convinced him that the elements regulating the different features acted independently of each other, so the inheritance of one particular colour of flower was not influenced, for example, by the inheritance of pea shape.
This is now described as Mendel’s law of independent assortment.

He first articulated his results in 1865 and in 1866, which was shortly after Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ appeared, published them in an article ‘Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden’ (Experiments with plant hybrids).

No one before him had attempted to use mathematics and statistics as a means of understanding and predicting biological processes and during his lifetime and for some time after, his results were largely ignored.

Around the time of Mendel’s death, scientists using ever improving optics to study the minute architecture of cells coined the term ‘chromosome’ to describe the long, stringy bodies in the cell nucleus.

The seven traits studied in peas
TRAIT DOMINANT TRAIT RECESSIVE TRAIT
Type of seed surface smooth wrinkled
Colour of seed albumen yellow green
Colour of seed coat grey white
Form of ripe pod inflated constricted
Colour of unripe pod green yellow
Position of flowers on stem axial terminal
Length of stem tall short

‘There is doubt as to the probity of this Jesuit scholar, some claiming that his data was falsified whilst others argue that it is accurate’
Pilgrim, I. (1984) The Too-Good-to-be-True Paradox and Gregor Mendel. Journal of Heredity,#75, pp 501-2. Cited in Brake,M.L. & Hook, N. Different Engines – How science drives fiction and fiction drives science

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THOMAS HUNT MORGAN (1866-1945)

1933 – USA

‘The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity’ (1915), ‘The Theory of the Gene’ (1926)’

Morgan laid the foundation for understanding MENDEL’s observations and helped to provide the science required to reinforce CHARLES DARWIN’s conclusions.

Starting with Mendel’s laws of segregation and independent assortment, Morgan investigated why there are far fewer chromosomes – the long thread-like structures present in the nucleus of every living cell, which grow and divide during cell splitting, – than there are ‘units of heredity’. Morgan could not see how these few chromosomes could account for all the changes that occur from one generation to the next.

Mendel’s ‘factors of heredity’ had been renamed ‘genes’ in 1909 by the Dane Wilhelm Johannsen.

When the organism forms its reproductive cells (gametes), the genes segregate and pass to different gametes.
Since it had been separately established that chromosomes play an important part in inheritance, then groups of genes had to be present on a single chromosome.
If all the genes were arranged along chromosomes, and all chromosomes were transmitted intact from one generation to the next, then many characteristics would be inherited together. This implicitly invalidates Mendel’s law of independent assortment, which dictated that hereditary traits caused by genes would occur in all possible mathematical combinations in a series of descendants, independent of each other.

Experimental evidence often seemed to back-up the mathematical forecasts for characteristics present in descendants that Mendel had suggested; Morgan felt that the law of independent assortment could not accurately model the process of arriving at the end result.

He began his experiments with the fruit fly, which has just four pairs of chromosomes, in 1908.
He observed a mutant white-eyed male fly, which he extracted for breeding with ordinary red-eyed females. Over subsequent generations of interbred offspring, the white-eyed trait returned in some descendants, all of which turned out to be males. Clearly, certain genetic traits were not occurring independently of each other but were being passed on in groups.
Rather than invalidating Mendel’s law of independent assortment, a simple adjustment was required to unite it with Hunt’s belief in chromosomes to produce his thesis.
He suggested that the law of independent assortment did apply – but only to genes found on different chromosomes. For those on the same chromosome, linked traits would be passed on; usually a sex-related factor with other specific features (such as, the male sex and the white-eyed characteristic).

The results of his work convinced Morgan that genes were arranged on chromosomes in a linear manner and could be mapped. Further testing showed that, as chromosomes actually break apart and re-form during the production of sperm and egg cells, linked traits could occasionally be broken during the exchange of genes (recombination) that occurred between pairs of chromosomes during the process of cell division. He hypothesised that the nearer on the chromosome the genes were located to each other, the less likely the linkages were to be broken. Thus by measuring the occurrence of breakages he could work out the position of the genes along the chromosome.
In 1911 he produced the first chromosome map showing the position of five genes linked to gender characteristics.

In 1933 Hunt Morgan received the Nobel Prize for Physiology.

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FRANCIS CRICK (USA 1916-2004) JAMES DEWEY WATSON (UK b.1928)

1953 – UK

‘The self reproducing genetic molecule DNA has the form of a double helix’

Photograph of WATSON & CRICK ©

WATSON & CRICK

The structure explains how DNA stores information and replicates itself.
The helical strands of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) consist of chains of alternating sugar and phosphate groups. Four types of base – adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T) – form the rungs of the DNA ladder, which can only be linked by hydrogen bonds in four combinations: A-T, C-G, T-A, G-C.

The DNA code is based on the order of these four bases and is carried from one generation to the next. The sequence of base pairs along the length of the strands is not the same in DNAs of different organisms. It is this difference in the sequence that makes one gene different from another.

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ALLAN WILSON (1934- 91)

1987 – USA

‘All humans have evolved from a single woman – dubbed Eve – or, more likely from a small group of women, who lived about 200,000 years ago in Africa’

This hypothesis has been proposed after examining the mitochondrial DNA from 147 individuals from Africa, Europe, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Lucy

The mtDNA is passed to the next generation only in the mother’s egg cell – with no contribution from the father because the sperms’ mitochondria do not survive fertilisation. The mtDNA of an individual is thus inherited from the female line.
133 different mtDNA types were used to draw an evolutionary tree that relates these types to each other and to a derived ancestral mtDNA tree. Their mtDNA tree had a common primary root of descent.

Not all scientists support the hypothesis. They argue that humans originated about one million years ago in different regions of the world.

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IAN WILMUT (b.1945)

1996 – Scotland

‘A mammal can be cloned from adult tissues’

Clones are genetically identical individuals produced from the same parent by non-sexual reproduction.

picture of the cloned animal Dolly the sheep, whose creator has now abandoned cloning

Wilmut and his team at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland,took the nuclei of somatic cells from the tissues of mammary glands of a mature sheep. They took eggs from another sheep, removed their nuclei, which contain DNA, and fused the somatic nuclei with the gamete cells by passing electric pulses through them. The process replaced the DNA of the egg with the genetic material from the mammary tissue. The cloned eggs were placed in a culture dish where they grew into embryos. The researchers cloned 277 eggs, of which 29 grew into embryos. These were transplanted into 13 ewes, acting as surrogate mothers. Five months later one lamb was born. The lamb, Dolly, had no father and its genes came entirely from the udder of a ewe. Dolly the cloned sheep died in 2003.

The mammal cloning experiment has been repeated successfully on other species of mammals. These experiments show that cloning humans is possible, but it has major theological, ethical, moral and social implications.

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