During the 19th century, long before chromosomes or genes had been identified, Johann Gregor Mendel set the framework for genetics by studying a simple biological system, the garden pea. He conducted methodical, quantitative analyses using large sample sizes. Mendel’s work laid the foundation for the fundamental principles of heredity. We now know that genes, carried on chromosomes, are the basic functional units of heredity with the capacity to be replicated, expressed, repressed, modified and mutated. Today, the postulates put forth by Mendel form the basis of classical, or Mendelian, genetics. Genes do not all obey the tenets of Mendelian genetics, but Mendel’s experiments serve as an excellent starting point for thinking about inheritance.

An understanding of genetic inheritance enables scientists to study and explain complex phenomena. For example, scientists studied the remains of 84 ancient dogs from North and South America. They found that some of the dogs had greater genetic diversity, indicating that these dogs might have interbred with American wolves. Other dogs in their sample had low diversity, indicating that ancient humans were purposely breeding dogs. The study also found that dogs migrated to the Americas with humans only about 10,000 years ago. 

The seven characteristics that Mendel evaluated in his pea plants were each expressed as one of two versions, or traits. The physical expression of characteristics is accomplished through the expression of genes carried on chromosomes. The genetic makeup of peas consists of two similar or homologous copies of each chromosome, one from each parent. Each pair of homologous chromosomes has the same linear order of genes. In other words, peas are diploid organisms in that they have two copies of each chromosome. The same is true for many other plants and for virtually all animals. Diploid organisms utilize meiosis to produce haploid gametes, which contain one copy of each homologous chromosome that unite at fertilization to create a diploid zygote.

Mendel generalized the results of his pea-plant experiments into four postulates, some of which are sometimes called “laws,” that describe the basis of dominant and recessive inheritance in diploid organisms. As you have learned, more complex extensions of Mendelism exist that do not exhibit the same F2 phenotypic ratios (3:1). Nevertheless, these laws summarize the basics of classical genetics.

Johann Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) was a lifelong learner, teacher, scientist, and man of faith. As a young adult, he joined the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. Supported by the monastery, he taught physics, botany, and natural science courses at the secondary and university levels.

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