William Bateson and the Birth of Genetics

William Bateson drawing

William Bateson drawing (1861-1923)

On August 8 1861English biologist William Bateson was born. Bateson was the first person to use the term genetics to describe the study of heredity, and the chief popularizer of the ideas of Gregor Mendel [7] following their rediscovery in 1900 by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns.

“The concept of evolution as proceeding through the gradual transformation of masses of individuals by the accumulation of impalpable changes is one that the study of genetics shows immediately to be false. Once for all, that burden so gratuitously undertaken in ignorance of generic physiology by the evolutionists of the last century may be cast into oblivion. For the facts of heredity and variation unite to prove that genetic variation is a phenomenon of individuals.”
– William Bateson, Mendel’s Principles of Heredity (1913)

William Bateson – Early Years

William Bateson was born in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, the son of William Henry Bateson, Master of St John’s College, Cambridge. He was educated at Rugby School and at St John’s College in Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1883 with a first in natural sciences. He traveled to the United States in order to study embryology and investigate the development of Balanoglossus. This sparked his interest in vertebrate origins. Later on, Bateson became a fellow of St John’s. He further studied variation and heredity while traveling in western Central Asia.

Mechanisms of Biological Evolution

Bateson’s early works on the mechanisms of biological evolution were strongly influenced by Charles Darwin [5] and Francis Galton[6]. In his first important work, he showed that some biological characteristics are not distributed continuously, with a normal distribution, but discontinuously. Bateson saw the persistence of two forms in one population as a challenge to the then current conceptions of the mechanism of heredity.

The Study of Variation

In 1894, William Bateson published the book “Materials for the study of variation“. In it, he intended to show that biological variation exists both continuously, for some characters, and discontinuously for others. He coined the terms ‘meristic‘ and ‘substantive‘. Three years later, Bateson reported conceptual and methodological advances in his study of variation. He wrote about a series of breeding experiments performed by is pupil, Miss E.R. Saunders, using the alpine brassica Biscutella laevigata in the Cambridge botanic gardens. They intercrossed hairy and smooth forms of identical plants experimentally and found out that they present “the same appearance of discontinuity which the wild plants at the Tosa Falls do. This discontinuity is, therefore, the outward sign of the fact that in heredity the two characters of smoothness and hairiness do not completely blend, and the offspring do not regress to one mean form, but to two distinct forms”. In Materials Bateson noted and named homeotic mutations, in which an expected body-part has been replaced by another. The animal mutations he studied included bees with legs instead of antennae; crayfish with extra oviducts; and in humans, polydactyly, extra ribs, and males with extra nipples. These mutations are in the homeobox genes which control the pattern of body formation during early embryonic development of animals.

Early Research in Genetics

When Bateson directed a genetics research group at Cambridge, which consisted mostly of women associated with Newnham College, Cambridge. They provided assistance for his research program at a time when Mendelism was not yet recognized as a legitimate field of study and carried out a series of breeding experiments in various plant and animal species. The results supported and extended Mendel’s laws of heredity.

The Rediscover of Mendel

At about this time, Hugo de Vries and Carl Erich Correns began similar plant-breeding experiments. But, unlike Bateson, they were familiar with the extensive plant breeding experiments of Gregor Mendel in the 1860s, and they did not cite Bateson’s work.[7] Critically, Bateson gave a lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society in July 1899, which was attended by Hugo de Vries, in which he described his investigations into discontinuous variation, his experimental crosses, and the significance of such studies for the understanding of Heredity. He urged his colleagues to conduct large-scale, well-designed and statistically analysed experiments of the sort that, although he did not know it, Mendel had already conducted, and which would be “rediscovered” by de Vries and Correns just six months later.

The Science of Genetics

It is assumed that William Bateson first suggested using the word ‘genetics‘ (from the Greek gennō, γεννώ; “to give birth“) to describe the study of inheritance. He first used the term publicly at the Third International Conference on Plant Hybridization in London in 1906. William Bateson co-discovered genetic linkage with Reginald Punnett and Edith Saunders, and he and Punnett founded the Journal of Genetics in 1910. Bateson also coined the term ‘epistasis‘ to describe the genetic interaction of two independent loci. In June 1894 Bateson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and won their Darwin Medal in 1904 and their Royal Medal in 1920.

William Bateson became director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in 1910 and moved with his family to Merton Park in Surrey. He was director there until his sudden death on February 8, 1923, at age 64.

Adrian Bird, Genetics, epigenetics and disease, [11]

References and Further Reading:

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