The garden pea has several advantageous characteristics that allowed Mendel to develop the laws of modern genetics.
- Describe the scientific reasons for the success of Mendel’s experimental work
- Mendel used true-breeding plants in his experiments. These plants, when self-fertilized, always produce offspring with the same phenotype.
- Pea plants are easily manipulated, grow in one season, and can be grown in large quantities; these qualities allowed Mendel to conduct methodical, quantitative analyses using large sample sizes.
- Based on his experiments with the garden peas, Mendel found that one phenotype was always dominant over another recessive phenotype for the same trait.
- phenotype: the observable characteristics of an organism, often resulting from its genetic information or a combination of genetic information and environmental factors
- genotype: the specific genetic information of a cell or organism, usually a description of the allele or alleles relating to a specific gene.
- true-breeding plant: a plant that always produces offspring of the same phenotype when self-fertilized; one that is homozygous for the trait being followed.
Mendel’s Model System
Mendel’s seminal work was accomplished using the garden pea, Pisum sativum, to study inheritance. Pea plant reproduction is easily manipulated; large quantities of garden peas could be cultivated simultaneously, allowing Mendel to conclude that his results did not occur simply by chance. The garden pea also grows to maturity within one season; several generations could be evaluated over a relatively short time.
Pea plants have both male and female parts and can easily be grown in large numbers. For this reason, garden pea plants can either self-pollinate or cross-pollinate with other pea plants. In the absence of outside manipulation, this species naturally self-fertilizes: ova (the eggs) within individual flowers are fertilized by pollen (containing the sperm cell) from the same flower. The sperm and the eggs that produce the next generation of plants both come from the same parent. What’s more, the flower petals remain sealed tightly until after pollination, preventing pollination from other plants. The result is highly inbred, or “true-breeding,” pea plants. These are plants that always produce offspring that look like the parent. Today, we know that these “true-breeding” plants are homozygous for most traits.
A gardener or researcher, such as Mendel, can cross-pollinate these same plants by manually applying sperm from one plant to the pistil (containing the ova) of another plant. Now the sperm and eggs come from different parent plants. When Mendel cross-pollinated a true-breeding plant that only produced yellow peas with a true-breeding plant that only produced green peas, he found that the first generation of offspring is always all yellow peas. The green pea trait did not show up. However, if this first generation of yellow pea plants were allowed to self-pollinate, the following or second generation had a ratio of 3:1 yellow to green peas.
In this and all the other pea plant traits Mendel followed, one form of the trait was “dominant” over another so it masked the presence of the other “recessive” form in the first generation after cross-breeding two homozygous plants.. Even if the phenotype (visible form) is hidden, the genotype (allele controlling that form of the trait) can be passed on to next generation and produce the recessive form in the second generation. By experimenting with true-breeding pea plants, Mendel avoided the appearance of unexpected (recombinant) traits in offspring that might occur if the plants were not true breeding.