3-2-2. Mendel’s Experiments and the Laws of Probability
Johann Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) (Figure 1) was a lifelong learner, teacher, scientist, and man of faith. As a young adult, he joined the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. Supported by the monastery, he taught physics, botany, and natural science courses at the secondary and university levels. In 1856, he began a decade-long research pursuit involving inheritance patterns in honeybees and plants, ultimately settling on pea plants as his primary
Mendel’s work went virtually unnoticed by the scientific community that believed, incorrectly, that the process of inheritance involved a blending of parental traits that produced an intermediate physical appearance in offspring; this hypothetical process appeared to be correct because of what we know now as continuous variation.
Mendel’s Model System
Mendel’s seminal work was accomplished using the garden pea, Pisum sativum, to study inheritance. This species naturally self-fertilizes, such that pollen encounters ova within individual flowers. 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. By experimenting with true-breeding pea plants, Mendel avoided the appearance of unexpected traits in offspring that might occur if the plants were not true breeding. The garden pea also grows to maturity within one season, meaning that several generations could be evaluated over a relatively short time. Finally, large quantities of garden peas could be cultivated simultaneously, allowing Mendel to conclude that his results did not come about simply by chance.
Plants used in first-generation crosses were called
Garden Pea Characteristics Revealed the Basics of Heredity
In his 1865 publication, Mendel reported the results of his crosses involving seven different characteristics, each with two contrasting traits. A
What results did Mendel find in his crosses for flower color? First, Mendel confirmed that he had plants that bred true for white or violet flower color. Regardless of how many generations Mendel examined, all self-crossed offspring of parents with white flowers had white flowers, and all self-crossed offspring of parents with violet flowers had violet flowers. In addition, Mendel confirmed that, other than flower color, the pea plants were physically identical.
Once these validations were complete, Mendel applied the pollen from a plant with violet flowers to the stigma of a plant with white flowers. After gathering and sowing the seeds that resulted from this cross, Mendel found that 100 percent of the F1 hybrid generation had violet flowers. Conventional wisdom at that time would have predicted the hybrid flowers to be pale violet or for hybrid plants to have equal numbers of white and violet flowers. In other words, the contrasting parental traits were expected to blend in the offspring. Instead, Mendel’s results demonstrated that the white flower trait in the F1 generation had completely disappeared.
Importantly, Mendel did not stop his experimentation there. He allowed the F1 plants to self-fertilize and found that, of F2-generation plants, 705 had violet flowers and 224 had white flowers. This was a ratio of 3.15 violet flowers per one white flower, or approximately 3:1. When Mendel transferred pollen from a plant with violet flowers to the stigma of a plant with white flowers and vice versa, he obtained about the same ratio regardless of which parent, male or female, contributed which trait. This is called a
Table 1. The Results of Mendel’s Garden Pea Hybridizations
Upon compiling his results for many thousands of plants, Mendel concluded that the characteristics could be divided into expressed and latent traits. He called these, respectively, dominant and recessive traits.
So why did Mendel repeatedly obtain 3:1 ratios in his crosses? To understand how Mendel deduced the basic mechanisms of inheritance that lead to such ratios, we must first review the laws of probability.
Probabilities are mathematical measures of likelihood. The empirical probability of an event is calculated by dividing the number of times the event occurs by the total number of opportunities for the event to occur. It is also possible to calculate theoretical probabilities by dividing the number of times that an event is expected to occur by the number of times that it could occur. Empirical probabilities come from observations, like those of Mendel. Theoretical probabilities come from knowing how the events are produced and assuming that the probabilities of individual outcomes are equal. A probability of one for some event indicates that it is guaranteed to occur, whereas a probability of zero indicates that it is guaranteed not to occur. An example of a genetic event is a round seed produced by a pea plant. In his experiment, Mendel demonstrated that the probability of the event “round seed” occurring was one in the F1 offspring of true-breeding parents, one of which has round seeds and one of which has wrinkled seeds. When the F1 plants were subsequently self-crossed, the probability of any given F2 offspring having round seeds was now three out of four. In other words, in a large population of F2 offspring chosen at random, 75 percent were expected to have round seeds, whereas 25 percent were expected to have wrinkled seeds. Using large numbers of crosses, Mendel was able to calculate probabilities and use these to predict the outcomes of other crosses.
The Product Rule and Sum Rule
Mendel demonstrated that the pea-plant characteristics he studied were transmitted as discrete units from parent to offspring. As will be discussed, Mendel also determined that different characteristics, like seed color and seed texture, were transmitted independently of one another and could be considered in separate probability analyses. For instance, performing a cross between a plant with green, wrinkled seeds and a plant with yellow, round seeds still produced offspring that had a 3:1 ratio of green:yellow seeds (ignoring seed texture) and a 3:1 ratio of round:wrinkled seeds (ignoring seed color). The characteristics of color and texture did not influence each other.
Table 2. Twelve Equally Likely Outcomes of Rolling a Die and Flipping a Penny
Of the 12 possible outcomes, the die has a 2/12 (or 1/6) probability of rolling a two, and the penny has a 6/12 (or 1/2) probability of coming up heads. By the product rule, the probability that you will obtain the combined outcome 2 and heads is: (D2) x (PH) = (1/6) x (1/2) or 1/12 (Table 3). Notice the word “and” in the description of the probability. The “and” is a signal to apply the product rule. For example, consider how the product rule is applied to the dihybrid cross: the probability of having both dominant traits in the F2 progeny is the product of the probabilities of having the dominant trait for each characteristic, as shown here:
3/4 x 3/4 = 9/16
On the other hand, the
3/16 + 3/4 = 15/16
Table 3. The Product Rule and Sum Rule
To use probability laws in practice, it is necessary to work with large sample sizes because small sample sizes are prone to deviations caused by chance. The large quantities of pea plants that Mendel examined allowed him calculate the probabilities of the traits appearing in his F2 generation. As you will learn, this discovery meant that when parental traits were known, the offspring’s traits could be predicted accurately even before fertilization.
Working with garden pea plants, Mendel found that crosses between parents that differed by one trait produced F1 offspring that all expressed the traits of one parent. Observable traits are referred to as dominant, and non-expressed traits are described as recessive. When the offspring in Mendel’s experiment were self-crossed, the F2 offspring exhibited the dominant trait or the recessive trait in a 3:1 ratio, confirming that the recessive trait had been transmitted faithfully from the original P0 parent. Reciprocal crosses generated identical F1 and F2 offspring ratios. By examining sample sizes, Mendel showed that his crosses behaved reproducibly according to the laws of probability, and that the traits were inherited as independent events.
Two rules in probability can be used to find the expected proportions of offspring of different traits from different crosses. To find the probability of two or more independent events occurring together, apply the product rule and multiply the probabilities of the individual events. The use of the word “and” suggests the appropriate application of the product rule. To find the probability of two or more events occurring in combination, apply the sum rule and add their individual probabilities together. The use of the word “or” suggests the appropriate application of the sum rule.
Mendel performed hybridizations by transferring pollen from the _______ of the male plant to the female ova.
Which is one of the seven characteristics that Mendel observed in pea plants?
Imagine you are performing a cross involving seed color in garden pea plants. What F1 offspring would you expect if you cross true-breeding parents with green seeds and yellow seeds? Yellow seed color is dominant over green.
Consider a cross to investigate the pea pod texture trait, involving constricted or inflated pods. Mendel found that the traits behave according to a dominant/recessive pattern in which inflated pods were dominant. If you performed this cross and obtained 650 inflated-pod plants in the F2 generation, approximately how many constricted-pod plants would you expect to have?
Describe one of the reasons why the garden pea was an excellent choice of model system for studying inheritance.
The garden pea is sessile and has flowers that close tightly during self-pollination. These features help to prevent accidental or unintentional fertilizations that could have diminished the accuracy of Mendel’s data.
How would you perform a reciprocal cross for the characteristic of stem height in the garden pea?
Two sets of P0 parents would be used. In the first cross, pollen would be transferred from a true-breeding tall plant to the stigma of a true-breeding dwarf plant. In the second cross, pollen would be transferred from a true-breeding dwarf plant to the stigma of a true-breeding tall plant. For each cross, F1 and F2 offspring would be analyzed to determine if offspring traits were affected according to which parent donated each trait.
Johann Gregor Mendel, Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn, Bd. IV für das Jahr, 1865 Abhandlungen, 3–47. [for English translation see http://www.mendelweb.org/Mendel.plain.html]
blending theory of inheritance