Genetics Lesson #1: Mendel.

All life on Earth is based on DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid, a chemical that has the remarkable ability to not only reproduce itself, but also to translate itself into a class of chemicals called proteins that act as enzymes. The biochemical and molecular means by which this is accomplished is interesting, but very complex, and an understanding of how all this works isn't absolutely necessary to understand the basics of Mendelian genetics or to hybridize daylilies. However, we will get back to some of this later when we get into how genes act.

It was know prior to Mendel that progenies resembled their parents and there was a theory called blended inheritance to explain this. The theory was that traits got blended together much like mixing paint. Reading some of this older literature is really fascinating. In a way they were close to understanding inheritance, but were missing a few important facts.

In the mid 1800's an Austrian monk by the name of Gregor Johann Mendel started some experiments using peas that eventually became the foundation of modern genetics. Mendel got lucky in choosing to work with peas. Peas are naturally self pollinating and true breeding. All the progenies from one pea are the same as the parent. Mendel also choose traits where there were clear cut differences between the two alternative forms.

How then did Mendel succeed when so many failed before. Part of the answer is that Mendel got lucky in using peas, but his greatest asset was that his training was in natural sciences and mathematics, not in the biological sciences. Mendel had a brilliant analytical mind and he was able to reduce complexity to simpler terms in a way that was easy to understand. Mendel was able to do this, in part, because he was working more or less independently and not subject to accepting the current view.

What Mendel did in effect was to take complex data and reduce it to simple ratios and then notice that these ratios kept repeating themselves. From this Mendel formulated a theory where traits were inherited as discrete units that eventually became know as genes and that simple mathematical formulas could be used to predict the results from controlled crosses.

Mendel published his results in 1865 in a publication that was somewhat obscure. Unfortunately, Mendel's paper went more or less unnoticed until the turn of the century when it was rediscovered and its significance was quickly realized. The "loss" of Mendel's paper for 35 years is often blamed on it being published in an obscure publication, but in reality the publication wasn't as obscure as generally thought. There are two other factors that actually play an important role in minimizing the importance of Mendel's work. The first is that Mendel was just a monk, not an accepted scientist. However, Mendel also had the misfortune to publish his paper right at the time that Darwin published his famous theory of natural selection, which at the time caused quite an uproar and thus buried Mendel's paper. In reality, the ideas proposed by Darwin and Mendel fit together like two peas in a pod.