Genetics: Where it all began

An exhibit on the works of Gregor Mendel will tour the country for the next two years.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Oct. 9, 2006

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Little green peas. ... And yellow ones, too.

Who would have guessed they could play an important role in unlocking clues about heredity? One person clearly did.

Gregor Mendel, a 19th-century friar and high school science teacher, conducted studies on ordinary peas that are now credited with forming the basis of modern genetic science. An exhibition detailing his research opened last month at Chicago's Field Museum and will be traveling around the country over the next two years.

"Mendel's work with peas amounted to a revolution," said Neil Shubin, PhD, the museum's provost. "He opened the way for us to understand how our bodies are built."

Mendel, who worked in an abbey in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic, used mathematics, meticulous note-taking and thousands of pea plants -- 28,000 actual plants and more than 300,000 peas -- to learn that what he termed "elements," now called genes, carried traits from one generation to the next. He also determined that some were recessive while others were dominant. Though his discoveries were first published in 1865, they were initially ignored. When they were rediscovered in 1900, they triggered an explosion in genetic research.

"Virtually every major genetic discovery ultimately owes a debt to Mendel and his work with peas," Dr. Shubin said.

On display are Mendel's microscope and slides as well as numerous letters, journals and books. These objects, many of which have never before traveled outside Europe, are accompanied by several modern art pieces exploring genetic themes.

"This exhibit presents an exciting opportunity to broaden people's understanding of genetics beyond human diseases and the Human Genome Project," said Shannon Hackett, PhD, curator in the Bird Division of the Field's Dept. of Zoology.

The Field's exhibition will continue until April 1, 2007, after which it will be displayed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., from April 28 to Sept. 16, 2007. It will then travel to Columbus, Ohio, from Oct. 13 to Jan. 6, 2008; to Memphis, Tenn., from Feb. 2 to April 27, 2008; and to Philadelphia, from May 24 to Sept. 28, 2008.

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External links

"Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics," Field Museum exhibit, Chicago (link)

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