Why do you look like your family?
For a long time people understood that traits are passed down through families. The rules of how this worked were unclear, however. The work of Gregor Mendel was crucial in explaining how traits are passed down to each generation.
What does the word "inherit" mean? You may have inherited something of value from a grandparent or another family member. To inherit is to receive something from someone who came before you. You can inherit objects, but you can also inherit traits. For example, you can inherit a parent's eye color, hair color, or even the shape of your nose and ears!
Genetics is the study of inheritance. The field of genetics seeks to explain how traits are passed on from one generation to the next.
In the late 1850s, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel (Figure below) performed the first genetics experiments.
To study genetics, Mendel chose to work with pea plants because they have easily identifiable traits (Figure below). For example, pea plants are either tall or short, which is an easy trait to observe. Furthermore, pea plants grow quickly, so he could complete many experiments in a short period of time.
Characteristics of pea plants.
Mendel also used pea plants because they can either self-pollinate or be cross-pollinated. Self-pollination means that only one flower is involved; the flower's own pollen lands on the female sex organs. Cross pollination is done by hand by moving pollen from one flower to the stigma of another. As a result, one plant's sex cells combine with another plant's sex cells. This is called a "cross." These crosses produce offspring (or "children"), just like when male and female animals mate. Since Mendel could move pollen between plants, he could carefully control and then observe the results of crosses between two different types of plants.
He studied the inheritance patterns for many different traits in peas, including round seeds versus wrinkled seeds, white flowers versus purple flowers, and tall plants versus short plants. Because of his work, Mendel is considered the "Father of Genetics."
Mendel's First Experiment
In one of Mendel's early experiments, he crossed a short plant and a tall plant. What do you predict the offspring of these plants were? Medium-sized plants? Most people during Mendel's time would have said medium-sized. But an unexpected result occurred.
Mendel observed that the offspring of this cross (called the F1 generation) were all tall plants!
Next, Mendel let the F1 generation self-pollinate. That means the tall plant offspring were crossed with each other. He found that 75% of their offspring (the F2 generation) were tall, while 25% were short. Shortness skipped a generation. But why? In all, Mendel studied seven characteristics, with almost 20,000 F2 plants analyzed. All of his results were similar to the first experiment —about three out of every four plants had one trait, while just one out of every four plants had the other.
For example, he crossed purple flowered-plants and white flowered-plants. Do you think the colors blended? No, they did not. Just like the previous experiment, all offspring in this cross (the F1 generation) were one color: purple. In the F2 generation, 75% of plants had purple flowers and 25% had white flowers. There was no blending of traits in any of Mendel's experiments.
cross-pollinate: Moving pollen from one flower to the stigma of another so that one plant's sex cells combine with another plant's sex cells.
F1 generation: Offspring of a cross.
F2 generation: Offspring from the self-pollination of the F1 generation.
genetics: Study of inheritance.
inherit: To receive something from someone who came before you.
offspring: Result of a reproductive process; children.
self-pollinate: Fertilization that occurs when a flower's own pollen lands on and pollinates the female sex organs.
- Gregor Mendel was the father of the field of genetics, which seeks to explain how traits are passed on from one generation to the next.
- To study genetics, Mendel chose to work with pea plants because they have easily identifiable traits.
Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.
- What is a "simple" trait?
- What is a heterozygote? How is this different than a homozygote?
- You breed a plant with yellow wrinkled peas with a plant with yellow smooth peas. Both individuals are homozygous for both traits. What will the peas of the next generation look like?
- You breed plants with the same traits as in question 3, but this time the smooth trait is heterozygous in the second individual. What will the peas of the next generation look like?
- Since not all individuals in a generation successfully reproduce, how do you think the size of a population affects its ability to maintain heterozygotes in the population? What would happen to a population that lost all its heterozygotes? Think carefully and explain your answer fully.
- Why did Mendel choose to study pea plants?
- How did Mendel's experiments disprove the idea that we are simply a "blend" of our parents' traits?