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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Gallery for genetics genius
Statue of Gregor Mendel, Brno, Czech Republic
Gregor Mendel's work went unrecognised for decades
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By Ania Lichtarowicz
in Brno, the Czech Republic
An exhibition celebrating Gregor Mendel, the "father of genetics", opens in a monastery in the Czech city of Brno on Tuesday.

One of the miracles about Mendel is that he made a discovery about something of unbelievable complexity and came up with incredibly simple ideas

Prof Kim Nasmyth
The tribute is housed in a new gallery, specially designed by one the country's top architects and just metres away from where Mendel worked out the basic laws of genetics in the 19th Century.

The significance of Mendel's work was not recognised during his lifetime, but he is now famous for pioneering the use of statistics in biology.

As a young Augustinian monk, he uncovered the laws of heredity by observing the results of crossing thousands of pea plants.

Skill and patience

"Like a lot of great discoveries in science, it represents a basic, simple, crystalline insight into how something works," said Oxford University's Professor Martin Kemp, one of the curators of the exhibition.

St Mary's Church, Abbey of St Thomas, Brno
Mendel carried out his observations at an Augustinian monastery
"To do it, it required enormous skill, it required enormous patience of counting, of systematic observing over a course of years," he told the BBC.

Working long before the discovery of genes and chromosomes, Mendel laboriously recorded the results of his experiments with peas and eventually formulated the Law of Segregation and the Law of Independent Assortment.

He also coined two terms still in common use in genetics today: "recessive" and "dominant".

Brief education

Mendel gave up his work on peas after 15 years when he was made an Abbot in 1871, leaving him little time for science.

His scientific education was brief.

He spent only four terms at Vienna University, studying experimental physics and chemistry, and very little biology.

Professor Kim Nasmyth, the Director of the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna and one of the organisers of the exhibition, told BBC News Online that the simplicity of Mendel's work was the key to its success.

"One of the miracles about Mendel is that he made a discovery about something of unbelievable complexity and came up with incredibly simple ideas and came up with an incredibly powerful technique for analysing biology that nobody else had got really close to doing. "

Belated recognition

Mendel used new methods - like statistics - which at the time had never been applied to biology before.

But despite having his work published at the time, the significance of Mendel's experiments was not realised until much later - the next revolutionary discoveries in genetics were made more than 30 years afterwards.

Not much of Mendel's original work remains: a few pieces of paper with notes about the types of pea plants he grew in the Abbey's gardens.

There are in fact many more records about his work on astrology than genetics.

Apart from celebrating Mendel's discovery, the exhibition also incorporates pieces of modern art influenced by the science of genetics.

The exhibition will run for the coming year. Its organisers plan further events, including expanding Mendel's museum and recreating his original garden.

The BBC's Ania Lichtarowicz
"Mendel found how genes pass from one generation to the next"
See also:

11 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Commemorating the father of genetics
30 May 00 | Human genome
The history of genetics
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