What's so interesting about pea plants?
These purple-flowered plants are not just pretty to look at. Plants like these led to a huge leap forward in biology. The plants are common garden pea plants, and they were studied in the mid-1800s by an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel. With his careful experiments, Mendel uncovered the secrets of heredity, or how parents pass characteristics to their offspring.
You may not care much about heredity in pea plants, but you probably care about your own heredity. Mendel’s discoveries apply to you as well as to peas—and to all other living things that reproduce sexually.
Mendel and His Pea Plants
People have long known that the characteristics of living things are similar in parents and their offspring. Whether it’s the flower color in pea plants or nose shape in people, it is obvious that offspring resemble their parents. However, it wasn’t until the experiments of Gregor Mendel that scientists understood how characteristics are inherited. Mendel’s discoveries formed the basis of genetics, the science of heredity. That’s why Mendel is often called the "father of genetics." It’s not common for a single researcher to have such an important impact on science. The importance of Mendel’s work was due to three things: a curious mind, sound scientific methods, and good luck. You’ll see why when you read about Mendel’s experiments.
Gregor Mendel was born in 1822 and grew up on his parents’ farm in Austria. He did well in school and became a monk. He also went to the University of Vienna, where he studied science and math. His professors encouraged him to learn science through experimentation and to use math to make sense of his results. Mendel is best known for his experiments with the pea plant Pisum sativum (see Figure below).
Gregor Mendel. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel experimented with pea plants. He did all of his research in the garden of the monastery where he lived.
Blending Theory of Inheritance
During Mendel’s time, the blending theory of inheritance was popular. This is the theory that offspring have a blend, or mix, of the characteristics of their parents. Mendel noticed plants in his own garden that weren’t a blend of the parents. For example, a tall plant and a short plant had offspring that were either tall or short but not medium in height. Observations such as these led Mendel to question the blending theory. He wondered if there was a different underlying principle that could explain how characteristics are inherited. He decided to experiment with pea plants to find out. In fact, Mendel experimented with almost 30,000 pea plants over the next several years!
Why Study Pea Plants?
Why did Mendel choose common, garden-variety pea plants for his experiments? Pea plants are a good choice because they are fast growing and easy to raise. They also have several visible characteristics that may vary. These characteristics, which are shown in Figure below, include seed form and color, flower color, pod form and color, placement of pods and flowers on stems, and stem length. Each characteristic has two common values. For example, seed form may be round or wrinkled, and flower color may be white or purple (violet).
Mendel investigated seven different characteristics in pea plants. In this chart, cotyledons refer to the tiny leaves inside seeds. Axial pods are located along the stems. Terminal pods are located at the ends of the stems.
To research how characteristics are passed from parents to offspring, Mendel needed to control pollination. Pollination is the fertilization step in the sexual reproduction of plants. Pollen consists of tiny grains that are the male gametes of plants. They are produced by a male flower part called the anther (see Figure below). Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the anther to the stigma of the same or another flower. The stigma is a female part of a flower. It passes the pollen grains to female gametes in the ovary.
Flowers are the reproductive organs of plants. Each pea plant flower has both male and female parts. The anther is part of the stamen, the male structure that produces male gametes (pollen). The stigma is part of the pistil, the female structure that produces female gametes and guides the pollen grains to them. The stigma receives the pollen grains and passes them to the ovary, which contains female gametes.
Pea plants are naturally self-pollinating. In self-pollination, pollen grains from anthers on one plant are transferred to stigmas of flowers on the same plant. Mendel was interested in the offspring of two different parent plants, so he had to prevent self-pollination. He removed the anthers from the flowers of some of the plants in his experiments. Then he pollinated them by hand with pollen from other parent plants of his choice. When pollen from one plant fertilizes another plant of the same species, it is called cross-pollination. The offspring that result from such a cross are called hybrids.
- Gregor Mendel experimented with pea plants to learn how characteristics are passed from parents to offspring.
- Mendel’s discoveries formed the basis of genetics, the science of heredity.
- Cross-pollination produces hybrids.
- What is the blending theory of inheritance? Why did Mendel question this theory?
- List the seven characteristics that Mendel investigated in pea plants.
- How did Mendel control pollination in pea plants?
- What are hybrids?