William Bateson and the Study of Heredity

William Bateson drawing

William Bateson drawing

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 populariser of the ideas of Gregor Mendel following their rediscovery in 1900 by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns.

William Bateson graduated from St John’s College in Cambridge 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 studyed variation and heredity while traveling in western Central Asia.

Bateson’s early works on the mechanisms of biological evolution were strongly influenced by Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. 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.

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”.

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 recognised 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.

It is assumed that William Bateson first suggested using the word ‘genetics’ 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.

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