Since Mendel: From Counting Peas to Fluorescent Pigs

Oil Painting of Abbot Gregor Mendel. Mendel conducted his famous experiment at the Abbey of St. Thomas in what is now Brno, Czech Republic. He was elected Abbot of the St. Thomas friars in 1868, after which he had little time for science. Mendel may have been disheartened by the lack of reaction to his pea paper, but he knew that his discovery was important. Not long before his death in 1884, he told a scientific colleague, "My time will come." (Image credit: Field Museum, Stepan Bartos)

The father of genetics was a monk who spent eight years counting 300,000 peas.

His modest story is a far cry from the work of modern geneticists who, in the past decade, have managed to concoct creatures fit for science fiction films, from fluorescent pigs to human-animal hybrids.

While those scientists get regular press, few outside the scientific community know much about the contributions of Gregor Mendel, who would eventually lay down the basic laws of inheritance. His methodical research in the 19th century should be recognized as the forerunner of even the most outlandish genetic experiments going on today, experts say.

An exhibition dedicated to Mendel and his work will open at the Field Museum in Chicago on Sept. 15.

Genetics is everywhere

The freaky, newsworthy applications of genetic theory are just one small part of the field, said Shannon Hackett, a biologist at the Field Museum.

"Genetics is everywhere," Hackett told LiveScience, "and not always so exciting."

Observing the many generations of peas that he crossbred for nearly a decade, Gregor Mendel realized that the plants contained some elements—what would later be called genes—that were passed on from parents to their offspring. Using relatively simple tools and a religious adherence to the scientific method, his 1865 experiments produced a set of data that essentially outlined the notion of inheritance.

Charles Darwin wasn't aware of Mendel's work at the time, but their combined research eventually formed the core of modern biology, according to the museum. 

Genetic scientists haven't looked back since, Hackett said.

"The growth in just the last 50 years since Watson and Crick discovered the DNA double-helix has been astronomical," she said. "We all had questions about why things came to be the way they are. Now we have the tools to study those things."

Research in the past decades focused on the "small picture," Hackett said, with geneticists attempting to unravel the human body all the way down to its tiniest bits and pieces. The Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003 and successfully identified all the genes that make up human DNA, was the penultimate achievement of that movement, she said.

During the 13 years that the genome project was going on, a number of genetic marvels emerged—and shocked—the public:

  • Dolly, the first mammal to be cloned from a single cell, in 1996
  • A mouse with an ear growing from its back, in 1997
  • Rabbit eggs infused with human cells, in 2003
  • Pigs born fluorescent green, inside and out, in 2006

Addressing the ethical questions that have arisen alongside the latest experiments, scientists involved in the Human Genome Project are admitting that a balance must be struck between what geneticists can do now, what they are willing to do and what the law says is allowed.

Seeing the big picture again

From garden peas to clones, hybrids and fluorescent pigs: what would Mendel think?

Genetics is going in exciting new directions, Hackett said, and seems to be returning its focus to the bigger picture—something the Augustinian friar would probably have approved of.

"When you talk about genetics, people tend to think of human diseases, eye color, whether you can roll your tongue or not," Hackett said. "But everything that has DNA has genetics," including all plants and animals, she said, noting the importance of connecting humans with the natural world around us, from pigs to peas.

Indeed, that's probably in the not-too-distant future.

"We're at the point that we can actually conceive of creating a family tree connecting all the species on Earth," she said. "Think about that—that's amazing!"

Geneticists hope the Field Museum's Mendel exhibition will shed a little light on how the scientist was able to "crack one of science's toughest mysteries". Interactive exhibits will also look at modern Mendels, geneticists who are taking his theoretical foundations to some scary new places.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.