Essay by manangB-, May 2006

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Genetics is defined as the study of genes through their variation or the study of inheritance. It is the branch of biology that deals with heredity, especially the mechanisms of hereditary transmission and the variation of inherited characteristics among similar or related organisms.

For thousands of years farmers and herders have been selectively breeding their plants and animals in order to produce more productive hybrids. It was somewhat of a hit or miss process since the actual mechanisms governing inheritance were unknown. Knowledge of these genetic mechanisms finally came as a result of careful laboratory breeding experiments carried out over the last century and a half.

By the 1890's, the invention of better microscopes allowed biologists to discover the basic facts of cell division and sexual reproduction. The focus of genetics research then shifted to understanding what really happens in the transmission of hereditary traits from parents to children. A number of hypotheses were suggested to explain heredity, but Gregor Mendel, a little known Central European monk, was the only one who got it more or less right.

His ideas had been published in 1866 but largely went unrecognized until 1900, which was long after his death. His early adult life was spent in relative obscurity doing basic genetics research and teaching high school mathematics, physics, and Greek in Brno (now in the Czech Republic). In his later years, he became the abbot of his monastery and put aside his scientific work.

While Mendel's research was with plants, the basic underlying principles of heredity that he discovered also apply to people and other animals because the mechanisms of heredity are essentially the same for all complex life forms.

Through the selective growing of common pea plants over many generations, Mendel discovered that certain traits show up in offspring plants...