The field of genetics is relatively young. Gregor Mendel carried out work in the 19th century that still forms the basis of modern genetics, but his work was largely ignored until the late 19th/early 20th century. Coupled with Darwin's evolutionary theories, research began into the inheritance of characteristics. At the time, the field was usually called eugenics - unsurprisingly, this somewhat fell out of fashion after World War II. The discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson led to an understanding of the molecular nature of genetics, and since then the field has grown massively. Modern techniques allow for genes to be examined in great detail, altered, and even moved between different organisms. This has obvious uses for all sorts of fields, most notable agriculture and healthcare, although biotechnology is likely to become applicable to many other subjects.

At the same time, population genetics continues to examine the pressures involved in selection thus giving us a better idea of just what is going on in evolution both now and over the past couple of billion years. The breadth of genetics is quite astonishing, as is much of the knowledge that has been obtained.

Genetics is the study of biological heredity and variance. In simpler terms, it's the study of how genes are passed from parent to offspring, and how those genes create certain characteristics in an organism.

The modern age of genetics began in the early 1800s when Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) suggested that animals passed on acquired traits. This means that Lamarck believed that a baby giraffe's neck was long because its parents stretched their necks as they tried to graze on the leaves of tall trees. However, we now know his hypothesis was false. For example, if a man loses his right leg in a car accident, we don't expect his child to be born missing a right leg.

In the mid-1800s, Sir Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) suggested that an organism inherited some type of biological factor from its parents. At the time, Darwin didn't know what this "factor" was, but we now know it to be the chromosome. Darwin's book,On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), was a milestone in science.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), an Austrian monk, studied peas in his garden. He found that when he crossed smooth peas with wrinkled peas, they'd always give rise to smooth peas. If he crossed these second-generation smooth peas with each other or with wrinkled peas, he'd get some smooth peas and some wrinkled peas. However, if he crossed wrinkled peas with other wrinkled peas, he'd get only wrinkled peas. He published his findings in 1865, but unfortunately nobody paid much attention to his reports.

In the early 20th century, scientists investigating chromosome function rediscovered Mendel's work, and Mendelian genetics was born. Modern biology has since grown by leaps and bounds as scientists strive to understand genetics and DNA by studying bacteria, viruses, mice, plants, and thousands of other organisms.

In 1988, a committee of representatives from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy began to develop a five year plan to construct a physical map of the human genome. In 1990 the Human Genome Project was born and has since grown to include France, Britain, Japan and other countries. It is now widely coordinated by the Human Genome Organization (HUGO). HUGO is a private organization exclusively devoted to coordinating worldwide genome mapping and sequencing and to fostering collaboration between researchers.

The Human Genome Project is an effort by scientists throughout the world to map the entire human genome. So far, the scientists working on this project have made great strides toward achieving their goal. For instance, as a result of the project's research, scientists discovered the mutations that give rise to cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

Human Genome Project work must be done with extraordinary precision, because it deals with humankind, the only species with which scientists cannot selectively breed and experiment with. Human genetics researchers must carefully collect huge quantities of data through indirect studies and analyze that data with intense scrutiny. Once the data is analyzed and scientists form a hypothesis, instead of running experiments to test that hypothesis (as they would in genetic studies of other species), scientists must collect yet more data to confirm the result. Thus, the Human Genome Project is an enormously painstaking undertaking requiring millions of hours of research. On top of all that, HGP researchers must contend with the thorny ethical issues surrounding human genetics research.

From the BioTech Project at Written mainly by Kris Marshall(?). Used with permission. For further information see the BioTech homenode.

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