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 ©


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
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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1934 – England

Photograph of Dorothy Mary Hodgkin OM, FRS (12 May 1910 – 29 July 1994), née Crowfoot,  a British chemist, credited with the development of protein crystallography. Dorothy Crowfoot was born in Cairo on May 12th, 1910 where her father, John Winter Crowfoot was working in the Egyptian Education Service. ©


‘X-ray diffraction’

X-ray crystallography. X-rays are unique in that their wavelength is about the length of bonds within molecules. When X-rays hit a crystallized molecule, the electrons surrounding each atom cause the beam to bend. Because there are many atoms the result is that when the X-rays exit the crystal and fall onto a photographic plate, they produce a series of light and dark patches. Measuring the intensity and relative position of each patch indicates the relative positions of atoms within the crystal.

photo of Dorothy Hodgkin ©

With her co-worker John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) Hodgkin produced the first diffraction patterns for proteins.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to

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1952 – London, England

‘Description of the basic helical structure of the DNA molecule’


DNA overview

Photograph of young ROSALIND FRANKLIN &copy:


Her work is used, unaccredited, in Watson & Crick’s Nobel Prize-winning paper, from information ‘secretly’ leaked from Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins.

Through her work on X-ray diffraction, she realised that the ‘backbone’ of the DNA molecule was on the outside.

By 1952, Franklin had taken the clearest pictures of the molecules to date, which provided evidence of a helical, or spiral structure.
Watson & Crick would eventually articulate a ‘double-helix’ construction.

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1953 – UK

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

Photograph of 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.

link to Cold Spring Harbor - study of DNA

picture of the Nobel medal - link to

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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.


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.




australopithecus_africanus_-_cast_of_taung_child - link to 'evoanth' website
‘evoanth’ on WORDPRESS

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.