The Man Who Invented “Genetics”

Today we remember British naturalist William Bateson, who was born on August 8, 1861.  Bateson knew since childhood that he wanted to be a naturalist.  Charles Darwin had just developed a unifying theory for the life sciences, called “evolution.”

But Bateson disagreed with Darwin.  While Darwin argued that species evolve through a slow and continuous process, Bateson observed that distinct features in plants and animals often appeared and disappeared randomly between generations.  He became fascinated by discontinuous variation.

Bateson discovered the work of Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk who was researching pea plants.  Mendel studied how traits are inherited, coining the terms “dominant” and “recessive.”

Bateson applied Mendel’s theory of inheritance to Darwin’s theory of evolution, and called the new discipline “genetics” (from the Greek for “to give birth”).  Bateson also coined the terms “zygote” (for a fertilized cell) and “allelomorph” (for a gene variant, usually shortened to “allele”).

Interestingly, Bateson was adamantly opposed to the theory of chromosomes.  He finally accepted the idea near the end of his life after visiting Thomas Hunt Morgan’s “fly laboratory” (which I blogged about here).

While genetics studies specific genes and their role in inheritance, the more complex field of genomics studies an organism’s entire genetic makeup, including its interaction with non-genetic factors.

Agilent is a leading provider of genomics solutions, including microarrays, reagents, instruments and software.  Earlier this year, Agilent acquired 48 percent ownership of Lasergen, a start-up in next-generation sequencing technologies used in genomics.

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