Genetics is a discipline of biology. It is the science of heredity and variation of traits (characteristics) in living organisms, and the study of genes. In the laboratory, genetics proceeds by mating carefully selected organisms, and analysing their offspring. More informally, genetics is the study of how parents pass some of their characteristics to their children. It is an important part of biology, and gives the basic rules on which evolution acts.
The fact that living things inherit traits from their parents has been known since prehistoric times, and used to improve crop plants and animals through selective breeding. However, the modern science of genetics, which seeks to understand the process of inheritance, only began with the work of Gregor Mendel in the mid-nineteenth century. Although he did not know the physical basis for heredity, Mendel observed that organisms inherit traits via discrete units of inheritance, which are now called genes.
Living things are made of millions of tiny self-contained components called cells. Inside of each cell are long molecules called DNA. DNA stores information that tells the cells how to create that living thing. Parts of this information that tell how to make one small part or characteristic of the living thing – red hair, or blue eyes, or a tendency to be tall – are known as genes.
Every cell in the same living thing has the same DNA, but only some of it is used in each cell. For instance, some genes that tell how to make parts of the liver are switched off in the brain. What genes are used can also change over time. For instance, a lot of genes are used by a child early in pregnancy that are not used later.
A living thing has two copies of each gene, one from its mother, and one from its father. There can be multiple types of each gene, which give different instructions: one version might cause a person to have blue eyes, another might cause them to have brown. These different versions are known as alleles of the gene.
Since a living thing has two copies of each gene, it can have two different alleles of it at the same time. Often, one allele will be dominant, meaning that the living thing looks and acts as if it had only that one allele. The unexpressed allele is called recessive. In other cases, you end up with something in between the two possibilities. In that case, the two alleles are called co-dominant.
Most of the characteristics that you can see in a living thing have multiple genes that influence them. And many genes have multiple effects on the body, because their function will not have the same effect in each tissue. The multiple effects of a single gene is called pleiotropism. The whole set of genes is called the genotype, and the total effect of genes on the body is called the phenotype. These are key terms in genetics.
We know that man started breeding domestic animals from early times, probably before the invention of agriculture. We do not know when heredity was first appreciated as a scientific problem. The Greeks, and most obviously Aristotle, studied living things, and proposed ideas about reproduction and heredity.
Probably the most important idea before Mendel was that of Charles Darwin, whose idea of pangenesis had two parts. The first, that persistent hereditary units were passed on from one generation to another, was quite right. The second was his idea that they were replenished by 'gemmules' from the somatic (body) tissues. This was entirely wrong, and plays no part in science today. Darwin was right about one thing: whatever happens in evolution must happen by means of heredity, and so an accurate science of genetics is fundamental to the theory of evolution. This 'mating' between genetics and evolution took many years to organise. It resulted in the Modern evolutionary synthesis.
The basic rules of genetics were first discovered by a monk named Gregor Mendel in around 1865. For thousands of years, people had already studied how traits are inherited from parents to their children. However, Mendel's work was different because he designed his experiments very carefully.
In his experiments, Mendel studied how traits were passed on in pea plants. He started his crosses with plants that bred true, and counted characters that were eirther/or in nature (either tall or short). He bred large numbers of plants, and expressed his results numerically. He used test crosses to reveal the presence and proportion of recessive characters.
Mendel explained the results of his experiment using two scientific laws:
Mendel's laws helped explain the results he observed in his pea plants. Later, geneticists discovered that his laws were also true for other living things, even humans. Mendel's findings from his work on the garden pea plants helped to establish the field of genetics. His contributions were not limited to the basic rules that he discovered. Mendel's care towards controlling experiment conditions along with his attention to his numerical results set a standard for future experiments. Over the years, scientists have changed and improved Mendel's ideas. However, the science of genetics would not be possible today without the early work of Gregor Mendel.
In the years between Mendel's work and 1900 the foundations of cytology, the study of cells, was developed. The facts discovered about the nucleus and cell division were essential for Mendel's work to be properly understood.
At this point, discoveries in cytology merged with the rediscovered ideas of Mendel to make a fusion called cytogenetics, (cyto = cell; genetics = heredity) which has continued to the present day.
During the 1890s several biologists began doing experiments on breeding. and soon Mendel's results were duplicated, even before his papers were read. Carl Correns and Hugo de Vries were the main rediscovers of Mendel's writings and laws. Both acknowledged Mendel's priority, although it is probable that de Vries did not understand his own results until after reading Mendel. Though Erich von Tschermak was originally also credited with rediscovery, this is no longer accepted because he did not understand Mendel's laws. Though de Vries later lost interest in Mendelism, other biologists built genetics into a science.
Mendel's results were replicated, and genetic linkage soon worked out. William Bateson perhaps did the most in the early days to publicise Mendel's theory. The word genetics, and other terminology, originated with Bateson.
Mendel's experimental results have later been the object of some debate. Fisher analyzed the results of the F2 (second filial) ratio and found them to be implausibly close to the exact ratio of 3 to 1. It is sometimes suggested that Mendel may have censored his results, and that his seven traits each occur on a separate chromosome pair, an extremely unlikely occurrence if they were chosen at random. In fact, the genes Mendel studied occurred in only four linkage groups, and only one gene pair (out of 21 possible) is close enough to show deviation from independent assortment; this is not a pair that Mendel studied.
If B represents the allele for having black hair and b represents the allele for having white hair, the offspring of two Bb parents would have a 25% probability of having two white hair alleles (bb), 50% of having one of each (Bb), and 25% of having only black hair alleles (BB).
Geneticists (biologists who study genetics) use pedigree charts to record traits of people in a family. Using these charts, geneticists can study how a trait is inherited from person to person.
Geneticists can also use pedigree charts to predict how traits will be passed to future children in a family. For instance, genetic counselors are professionals who work with families who might be affected by genetic diseases. As part of their job, they create pedigree charts for the family, which can be used to study how the disease might be inherited.
Since human beings are not bred experimentally, human genetics must be studied by other means. One way is by twin studies. Identical twins are natural clones. They carry the same genes, they may be used to investigate how much heredity contributes to individual people. Studies with twins have been quite interesting. If we make a list of characteristic traits, we find that they vary in how much they owe to heredity. For example:
The way the studies are done is like this. Take a group of identical twins and a group of fraternal twins. Measure them for various traits. Do a statistical analysis (such as analysis of variance). This tells you to what extent the trait is inherited. Those traits which are partly inherited will be significantly more similar in identical twins. Studies like this may be carried further, by comparing identical twins brought up together with identical twins brought up in different circumstances. That gives a handle on how much circumstances can alter the outcomes of genetically identical people.
The person who first did twin studies was Francis Galton, Darwin's half-cousin, who was a founder of statistics. His method was to trace twins through their life-history, making many kinds of measurement. Unfortunately, though he knew about mono and dizygotic twins, he did not appreciate the real genetic difference. Twin studies of the modern kind did not appear until the 1920s.
Here are sentences from other pages on Genetics, which are similar to those in the above article.