Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Gregor Mendel - Father of Genetics and Son of Citizen Science

I love Citizen Science.  But I REALLY love Citizen Scientists.  Their passion for knowledge and ability to advance fields outside their own professions should inspire everyone.  So I've tried to combine this blog with both stories of citizen science research projects as well as discussions of the regular people behind those discoveries.  So it was with great interest that I found John Malone's book "It Doesn't Take a Rocket Scientist", highlighting the stories of the many great amateurs of science.
The first person I'd like to highlight is Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics.  This unassuming monk spent years working in his garden breeding pea plants; centuries later we still use his Laws of Inheritance are a pillar of modern biology and studied in high schools across the world.  Pretty impressive for a humble man who failed all his high school teaching certification tests.

Gregor Mendel was born in 1822 on a farm in Moravia, a part of Austria that is now part of the Czech Republic.  His father Anton was extremely hard-working and serious-minded while his mother and the youngest sister, Theresia, had much lighter personalities.  Even at an early age he was very bright with an inquisitive mind.  One of his idols was the father of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg, whom Mendel even wrote a poem about.

As a farm boy with little family fortune, higher education was not affordable for young Gregor.  Fortunately his kind-hearted sister Theresia knew something the rest of the world didn't, and helped Mendel pay for continued education by donating her share of the family fortune.  Money that should have been her marriage dowry.  This helped him get through the Philosophical Institute, a two-year program required of all students who wished to study at a university, but it was not enough money to attend university.  Even adding both a small scholarship grant and the extra money earned from tutoring on the side came up short.  For a young man in the 1800s there was only one choice left if he wanted to keep learning.  He became monk.
Although a mediocre student, One of Mendel's physics professors recommended him to the head of a local Abbey named Abbot Napp.  Napp was an old friend of the professor's and headed the monastery of St. Thomas; he was also a former president of the Royal and Imperial Moravian Society for the Improvement of Agriculture, Natural Science, and Knowledge of the Country (Agricultural Society).  Once he joined the abbey at age 25 Mendel began teaching math and Greek at the local elementary, and he was quite successful in his first year of teaching was quite successful.  Although he was often uncomfortable speaking to adults, working with children was not a problem.  However, although well-regarded by his  contemporaries, he was unable to pass the teaching certification tests.  He even took additional math courses at the University of Vienna but still could not get certified.  So he continued teaching at the elementary level while looking for another use for his skills.
Malone specifically describes that time in detail, and sees it as highly symbolic of not just Mendel's efforts, bot those of citizen scientists throughout the ages:

Great amateur scientists have often received a considerable amount of education, but it tends to be spotty and sometimes lacking, ironically, in the very area in which the scientists ultimately makes his or her mark.  In Mendel's case, he received more mathematics training than anything else, and that would make it possible for him to apply a mathematical rigor to his experiments with pea plants that was highly unusual for the period.  He also studied some botany, but this was a subject that caused him particular problems.  Because he was a farm boy, he had an ingrained knowledge of plants that caused him to balk at various academic formulations.  When a student refuses to give the answer he or she has been taught, academicians inevitably conclude that the student is stupid rather than reassess their own beliefs.  Brilliant amateurs have always been prone to question the questioner, and that usually gets them into deep trouble.  The end result is often a young person of great talent who has not attained the kind of academic degree or standing that would serve as protection when he or she puts together an unorthodox idea...There is another side to this coin, however.  If Gregor Mendel had in fact passed the tests what would have made him a full-time high school teacher, it is unlikely that he would have had the time to devote to the experiments that would eventually make his name immortal.

After his first failed certification Mendel's first set of experiments included breeding mice in his room to understand how fur color was transmitted.  Animal husbandry was a long-standing art practiced by farmers and approved by the Catholic Church, but was very poorly understood. at the time  Mendel hoped to shed some light on the practice with his mouse-breeding experiments.  Unfortunately the local Bishop did not appreciate the sexual connotations of animal breeding.  Although Napp was a long-standing supporter of scientific experimentation, Mendel was eventually forced to stop the mouse experiments and turned to a more favorable test subject, peas (species Pisum).
Breeding peas requires much painstaking work.  Since they are hermaphroditic each plant contains both a male sex organ (stamen) that releases pollen (sperm), and female organs (pistil and style) that contain eggs.  For Mendel's experiments, he removed the stamen from all flowers so they wouldn't pollinate each other, and instead hand-pollinated the female organs with pollen from a known source.  He then covered each plant to prevent stray pollen coming in through the air or on the legs of an insect.  That way he could confirm the identity of both parent plants and characterize the offspring.  What Mendel looked for was:

  • Seed Shape - Smooth and Wrinkled
  • Seed Coat Color - White and Grey
  • Seed Color - Green and Yellow
  • Color of Unripe Pods - Green and Yellow
  • Shape of Ripe Pods - Inflated and Constricted
  • Stem Length - Tall and Short
  • Position of Flowers - All Along Stem and Single Flower at Top of Stem

This wasn't as easy as it sounds.  Before any experiments could begin, Mendel needed to make sure his peas were pure and that a plant showing certain characteristics would only show that characteristic and not any others.  So he spent two years cultivating the peas and making them "True" before ever attempting to cross-breed them.  In Malone's words,
"The fact that he spent so much time laying a rigorous foundation for his experiments is one of the many reasons his work has come to be so highly regarded.  Many people think this was a boring prelude to the experiments to come, but Mendel took so much pleasure in gardening for its own sake that even this preliminary stage must have brought its satisfactions."
Unfortunately none of Mendel's papers or lab notes remain.  He was eventually elected the new Abbot of St. Thomas after Napp's death in 1868, and quickly had too many other duties occupying his time and distracting from the pea work.  A few years later a tornado destroyed his greenhouse, and he passed away a few years later on January 6, 1884. He continued to serve as Abbot until his death on January 6, 1884.  At this point history kicks him while he's down with the burning of his papers in the monastery courtyard by a narrow-minded successor.  

All we have left is a two-part paper presented to the Agricultural Society in 1865.  Interestingly he even sent a copy to Charles Darwin.  But despite the support it would provide to evolutionary theory in later years, the math was too dense for many and his findings languished in obscurity for years.  Again we hear from Malone:
It would be another half century before the technical language would be developed to explain these results.  But Mendel had clearly demonstrated the difference between a phenotype (in which the physical traits are visibly displayed) and a genotype (in which the gene variants are present, and still capable of being passed on to another generation, but are not necessarily visible).  He had started with a theory and ended with confirmation of what eventually came to be called Mendel's laws.  He went on to experiment for a couple of years with a variety of other plants, including snapdragons and maize, which appeared to show that the results he had achieved with his peas would hold true for any plant.
Full recognition of Mendel's' work would wait until 1900, when three separate biologists would rediscover it at nearly the same time.  One of these was William Bateson.  He would eventually coin the word genetics and helped tie Mendel's work to evolutionary theory.  It was controversial for a long time, but "{U]ltimately one major scientist after another came over to the side of the Mendelians, for many particular reasons and one general one: Gregor Mendel's laws proved to be the most useful and logical approach to the new science of genetics."
In the end this poor farm boy with only some academic training and who was denied even the ability to teach science, would end up creating an entire field of biology and teaching scientists of the day that everything they understood was wrong.  Supposedly, in Mendel's later years, when people asked about his lack of recognition, he would say "My day will come".
Fortunately for scientists and citizen scientists everywhere, that day did indeed come.


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