Gregor Mendel, the monk who became famous for his pioneering work in plant genetics, initially wanted to create new, better crops. Only at a later stage did he become fascinated by how plant traits are inherited. This is the conclusion of a study published by plant breeding researcher Peter van Dijk in the scientific journal Genetics. Van Dijk works at KeyGene, a research company based in Wageningen, the Netherlands. Van Dijk’s findings are based on two recently discovered newspaper articles from 1861. They contradict what many historians have written about Mendel’s motives and demonstrate that the origin of breeding of innovative, improved vegetable crops can be traced back to as early as the 19th century.
Mendel is known to the general public as the founder of genetics. With his experiments with peas, Mendel showed that crossing of plants cannot be compared with mixing two fluids, but rather with passing on of ‘hereditary particles’ to the progeny.
Due to misunderstandings, Mendel’s notes were burned after his death so that, to date, nothing was known with certainty about Mendel’s motives. Peter van Dijk: “There was a gap in the crucial period between Mendel’s graduation in 1853 and his famous pea publication in 1865. I became fascinated by that 12-year gap and started looking for information from that period”.
Surprisingly, Van Dijk was actually assisted by modern technology. Many old back issues of newspapers are now being digitised and made accessible via the internet. Thanks to the use of so-called OCR software, digital images can be converted back into texts that can be easily searched with the help of search engines.
Van Dijk: “I discovered articles from 1861 in two Czech Brno newspapers about the work of Gregor Mendel. The newspaper described Mendel’s experiments as highly instructive and aimed at developing better varieties of vegetable and ornamental crops. In other words, in his early years, Mendel was not interested in understanding the inheritance of plant traits, but rather in agricultural innovation.”
Partly because of his intellectual environment and the possibilities Mendel had for doing research, he increasingly focused on clarifying the laws of inheritance. That research ultimately led to the famous 1865 publication. Van Dijk: “It took until 1900 before others, including Hugo de Vries, got this far, only to find out that Gregor Mendel had discovered the same principles, but 35 years earlier.”
The scientific article by Peter van Dijk of KeyGene and his co-authors Franjo Weissing of the University of Groningen and the Institute for Advanced Study in Amsterdam and Noel Ellis of the University of Auckland is open access and can, therefore, be read by anyone on the internet.
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