Mendel’s Peas

‘Modern genetics may be promising to revolutionise medicine, and even change what it means to be human, but the origins of the science stem from a humble origin - peas. In the 1860s, the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel pioneered the study of inheritance. He cultivated nearly 30,000 pea plants, carefully analysing seed and plant characteristics. By following certain traits through the generations, he realised that some traits appeared to be dominant while others would be recessive and fail to show when certain pea plants where crossed. Mendel's work was extraordinary, but it was many decades before his research received the recognition it deserved.’ BBC Science online

‘Gregor Mendel… was born in Northern Moravia in 1822…he  became an Augustinian friar…Father Mendel, aged thirty-four, began a series of experiments on peas in the monastery gardens that were to last eight years, involved the planting of over  30,000 different plants - 6,000 in 1860 alone – and eventually change the world forever. Afterwards, he knew what he had done, and published it clearly in the proceedings of the Brunn society for the study of natural science, a journal that found its way into all the best libraries. But recognition never came and Mendel eventually lost interest in the gardens as he rose to become the abbot of Brunn…In the garden, Mendel had been hybridising: crossing different varieties of pea plant. But this was no amateur gardener playing at science; this was a massive, systematic and carefully thought-out experiment. Mendel chose seven pairs of varieties of peas to cross... In every case, the resulting hybrids were always just like one parent. The other parent’s essence seemed to have vanished. But it had not: Mendel allowed the hybrids to self fertilise and the essence of the missing grandparent reappeared intact in roughly one quarter of the cases. He counted and counted – 19,959 plants in the second generation with the dominant characters outnumbering the recessives by 14,949 to 5,010, or 2.98 to 1… too suspiciously close to a ratio of three…Like a man possessed, Mendel turned from peas to fuschias, maize and other plants. He found the same results. He knew that he had discovered something profound about heredity: characteristics do not mix. There is something hard, indivisable, quantum and particulate at the heart of inheritence. There is no mingling of fluids, no blending of blood; there is instead a temporary joining together of lots of little marbles. In retrospect, this was obvious all along. How else could people account for the fact that a family might contain a child with blue eyes and a child with brown? Darwin, who none the less based his theory on blending inheritence hinted at the problem several times…’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘The Human Genome Project is but the latest increment in a remarkable scientific program whose origins stretch back a hundred years to the rediscovery of Mendel's laws and whose end is nowhere in sight. In a sense, it provides a capstone for efforts in the past century to discover genetic information and a foundation for efforts in the coming century to understand it.’ "International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium" International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, Nature, 2001

‘Mendelism took biology by surprise. Nothing about evolutionary theory demanded that heredity should come in lumps…indeed, the notion seemed to undermine everything that Darwin had strived to establish. Darwin said the evolution as the acculmulation of slight and random changes through selection. If genes were hard things that could emerge in tact from a generation of hiding, then how could they change gradually or subtly? In many ways the early twentieth century saw the triumph of Mendelism over Darwinism… in Britain it was not until the sharp, mathematical mind of Ronald Fisher was brought to bear on the matter in 1918 that Darwinism and Mendelism were at last reconciled.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

Mendel’s Peas

‘Modern genetics may be promising to revolutionise medicine, and even change what it means to be human, but the origins of the science stem from a humble origin – peas.’ BBC Science Online

Round-seeded with wrinkled - yellow cotyledons with green -

inflated pods with wrinkled, grey seed coats with bright white.

Unripe green with unripe yellow, axial flowers with terminal -

giants and dwarves - for eight years, I have crossed and bred

seven pairs, thirty thousand plants in the monastery garden,

brown fingers almost taking root, (my brother monks swear

they see my skin tinge green!). These are my chosen peas -

from all others, they breed true - and my hybrids, my peas’

offspring - stringy children, are in all ways like only one parent,

mother or father, but never both, and it seems even to a keen eye

as if the other one has vanished - quite disappeared from Nature

and from life - but listen well, leave my hybrids to themselves -

discreetly turn your back and let them be; let Nature stir them

in her own inestimable pot - and lo! - the missing grandparent

reappears! The essence had not died, but mark, had merely hid,

and came to light again for an observant eye; in full one quarter,

then, did I count and count once more – 19,959 of the second

generation - with dominants outnumbering these rediscovered

essences 14,949 to 5,010 – precisely! Or, almost three to one!

And I could see, even before my peas unfurled their secrets -

in their own green words - not true mixing, nor yet blending,

lay at the heart of what comes next, but only joining – secret

lesson of illuminating peas - my humble little peas speaking

such wisdom with puny, spindly limbs; sweet, clever heads.

‘I have lately been inclined to speculate, very crudely and indistinctly, that propagation by true fertilisation will turn out to be a sort of mixture, and not true fusion, of two distinct individuals… I can understand on no other view the way in which crossed forms go back to so large an extent to ancestral forms.’ Charles Darwin, letter to Thomas Henry Huxley, 1857

‘In Darwin’s time everybody (except Mendel who, tucked away in his monastery, was unfortunately ignored until after his death) thought that inheritance was blending. A Scottish engineeer called Fleeming Jenkin pointed out the fact (as it was thought to be) of blending inheritance all but rules out natural selection as a plausible theory of evolution…Darwin was deeply worried by Jenkin’s argument.’ Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Longman Scientific and Technical , 1986

‘Darwin, who none the less based his theory on blending inheritance, hinted at the problem several times…In his heart Darwin knew Jenkin was right… but Darwin also knew that his own theory was right. He could not square the two. If only he had read Mendel.’ Matt Ridley, Genome, Fourth Estate, 2000

And now my brother monks watch astonished

as the monastery garden turns pink in a blaze -

Fuschias now, and their children - then maize,

more and more plants - I am right, I am right -

the secret of inheritence is

discoverered in my peas!

‘The laws governing inheritence are quite unknown; no one can say why a peculiarity in different individuals of the same species…is sometimes inherited and sometimes not; why the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather or grandmother or other more remote ancestor.’ Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859

‘For four years, starting in 1866, Mendel sent his papers and his ideas to Karl-Wilheml Nageli, professor of botany in Munich. For four years Nageli missed the point…After struggling with hawkweed Mendel gave up and turned to bees. The results of his extensive experiments on the breeding of bees have never been found. Did he discover their strange ‘haplo-diploid’ genetics?’ Matt Ridley, Genome, Fourth Estate, 2000

So long on and on I wrote - and my paper published

in the journal and sent into the world; yes, four years

writing to Nageli alone - but he did not understand -

even through his own blasted, excuse me, angora cat,

whose fluffy coat was lost then re-emerged in kittens

of the third generation – a man who cannot see the cat

for the kittens! And his damned, pardon me, that awful

hawkweed he said that I should grow - strange creature

skewing my results, for it does not do as other plants do - 

(up here they’ve told me, it’s that hawkweed is apomictic,

‘Requiring pollen to breed but doesn’t incorporate genes

of the pollinating partner’, humph). Exasperated I became,

‘In the 1860s Gregor Mendel did, alone and if anything hindered by his few confidants, establish the main principles of genetics with his experiements on peas and other homely plants in his monastery garden at Brunn… He was one of the great geniuses of all science.’ Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, Mammals Cloned, The Second Creation, Headline 2001

so turned to bees - buzzing I was! In flight! - Industrious!

(And the brothers loved the honey, much more than peas);

and what I discovered was…well you find out, go on, do -

it’s out there still, my work that nobody yet has ever found.

And I shall say no more on this because it’s not allowed,

except to say that now I knew, for sure, I was right - plus

something else…Ah, if only scientists had been like bees,

drawn to honeypots, wandering elucidatory sticky combs.

‘At that time, unfortunately, Gregor Mendel’s work in what he called  hereditary ‘factors’ had been temporarily forgotten, so no one saw immediately that his ‘factors’, later known as genes, are carried on the chromosomes. Once see that, and the glorious underlying simplicity of biology starts to fall into place. The details may be complicated, however…’ The Facts of Life Revisited, Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, Headline, 2001

‘Yet even in his lifetime Mendel came tantalisingly close to full recognition. Charles Darwin, normally so diligent at gleaning ideas from the work of others, even recommended to a friend a book…that contained fourteen different references to Mendel’s paper. Yet he seems not to have noticed them himself. Mendel’s fate was to be rediscovered, in 1900, long afer his own and Darwin’s deaths. It happened almost simultaneously in three different places. Each of his rediscoverers…had laboriously duplicated Mendel’s work on different species before he found Mendel’s paper.’ Matt Ridley, Genome, Fourth Estate, 2000

And given this signficance of the number three,

as I had seen - wasn’t it weird to say the least -

in 1900 long after my death, I was rediscovered,

times three! Hurrah! Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns,

Erich von Tschermak, botanists all three - silly boys,

they did all the work again before discovering it had

all been done before by a Northern Moravian monk -

born in1822 - bet they felt fools! Darwin here’s still

kicking himself, it’s true. I’ll never stop making sport

of how he missed it too – I could have sorted his little

problem with Evolution - Natural Selection - eh, CD? 

Being right, he was sure, but something being wrong -

even though they thought, believed for all that time

we could not be reconciled - that one must be victor

with the spoils, not we two; if that’s not putting bees

before buggy, soup before peas; ah, it amuses us still. 

‘When Aristotle’s dim perception of information theory, buried under generations of chemistry and physics, re-emerged amid the discoveries of modern genetics, Max Delbruck joked that the Greek sage should be given a posthumous Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘Mendelism supplied the missing parts of the structure erected by Darwin.’ Ronald Fisher, 1918

‘Of course – as Mendel knew full well! – most characters are not determined by single genes. Most are polygenic, which means they are brought about by cominations of many different genes; and just to stir the pot a little more – most genes are pleiotropic, which means that they affect more than one character, often characters that seem quite unrelated to one another.’ Ian Wilmut, the Importance of Being Dolly, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

And now I’m not only Father Mendel, the Augustinian Friar,

Abbot of Brunn; they’re calling me, ‘The Father of Genetics’,

quite a nice ring - like ‘Mendelism’, ‘Mendelian Inheritance’,

not to mention ‘Mendelians’, ‘Mendelian Inerhitance in Man’;

my own website, you know! And I can’t say I’m not grateful -

true pride of a suitable kind is quite encouraged here; just like

Arisotle - they say he should have a posthumous Nobel prize

for really being the one to discover DNA! Oh, we keep up…

But what could I do then in life when so ignored,

but become Abbott, look after my brother monks,

eat good food and try to fight the monastery tax -

but still I dreamt of fuschias, bees; and, yes, peas!

‘In the 1920’s population geneticists such as Ronald Fisher, JBS Haldane, and Sewall Wright, put together Darwin’s work on natural selection and Mendel’s genetics to produce the ‘modern’ or ‘neo-Darwinian’ synthesis. That movement took Darwin’s work forward into the present day, particulalr in molecular genetics and the work that has flowered from the elucidation of DNA.’ Gillian Beer, Introduction, Charles Darwin Origin of Species, 1859, Oxford University Press, 1998

‘Mendel’s achievement was to reveal that the only reason most inheritance seems to be a blend is because it involves more than one particle. In the early nineteenth century John Dalton had proved that water was actually made up of billions of hard, irreducible little things called atoms and had defeated rival continuity theorists. So now Mendel had proved the atomic theory of biology. The atoms of biology might have been called all sorts of things; among the names used in the first years of this [Twentieth] century were factor, gemmule, plastidule, pangene, biophor, id and idant. But it was ‘gene’ that stuck.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘Genetics is the study of patterns of inheritance.The ‘father’ of genetics, Gregor Mendel, noticed patterns of inheritance for wrinkliness and colour of peas.The British biologist, J.B.S.Haldane noted that ‘hairy ears’ ran in certain Indian families.Thus, we have come to relate genes to attributes such as wrinkliness or hairy ears. In these cases, there appeared to be a one-to-one relationship between a gene and a characteristic. As more and more information on genes emerged, it became clear that simple one-to-one relationships were exceptional. It is quite usual, for instance, for more than one gene to lead to a given trait. Alternatively, genes may need to act in combination before a particular character shows through. Furthermore, environmental factors may influence the trait, sometimes dominating genetic factors.’ Demystifying Genomics, Medical Research Council, 2000

Evolution is a Biological Dance

Evolution is a colossal biological dance;

everything is in interaction, movement -

life is never static; being alive means

active organic chemistry, influenced

by internal and external factors -

nothing living acts alone; interior

and exterior environments in harmony -

conflict, just change, constant shuffling;

keeping, mixing, shifting. This dancing

of molecules, identified as one creature,

leaf, as our eyes would see it - process

biological information in adapted eyes,

is driven by the good of the creature;

and the best suited to circumstances

have the greatest chance of survival,

as ‘aptest’ - not ‘fittest’ in the sense

of ruthless, strongest, most competitive;

otherwise why would man be victorious

with his relative physical weakness,

idiocy towards the planet, disregard

for his own food, global safety, own tribes

around the world. Yet his brain is triumph -

golden tool of evolution; self-build product,

expanding even to contemplation of itself -

highest advantage over all other animals;

fabulous in construction and possibilities,

vision and dream, imagination, love;

seated in chemistries still unknown -

sophisticate dancing still with the green

nature of planet Earth - her astounding

soil biology, rhythmic seasons, principles

of growth and storage, of multiplications;

part of a complex interactive environment,

dimly aware of the dance by other names –

Latin, alien to most; explanatory science

of the dynamic organism, spooling from

evolving genome, strung genes, magical

powerhouses switching, sparkling with

activity; genius molecules making eyes

and hands - selecting, writing, editing

personal versions of the communal script -

never at rest, as Evolution, creative principle

working in the world, can never ever be at rest -

Creation driving the fingertips of drowned weed

reaching through the pavement - anaemic leaves

of sea-crippled tree trying to be green; the lichen

spores hunting a last black lifeless stone,

making a garden even in barren places -

from the first to the last cell, illuminating process

cultured out of water, earth – light, dark and stars.

Early names of genes  - Factor, gemmule, plastidule, pangene, biopjor, id, idant.

‘For the first half of the 20th century… geneticists were obliged to treat genes purely as abstractions, and commonly envisaged them like beads on a string (where the chromosomes are the strings).’ Ian Wilmut, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

Factor, gemmule, plastidule, pangene, biopjor, id, idant

Factor, gemmule, plastidule, pangene, biopjor, id, idant; such a

plethora of names for tantalisingly intangible chemical identity;

building its own language poem from blanks of ignorance.

Expression of principle, grasping partially hidden meaning,

unlikeliness of such simplicity for burden of life, bright reality;

history, present, future – factual organic magic to be uncovered,

described, tested to carry this fabulous weight; this holy script

for eye and wing, panda, peacock - prescription for luminosity.


Beads on a string is too prosaic, hard, contained; is not bustling

enough, not sparkling with messages - plasticity, change, hustle,

change, adaptation, movement. ‘Plastidule’ is not bad, I like it,

and ‘pangene’ which seems to say something of animals being

one with leaf, bacteria. ‘Id’ is plain wrong now psychoanalysis

has adapted. But in the end science got there; ‘gene’ is the best,

simple, suggestive, expansive - but short, like many good words -

some poetry, ring of genius; residual grandeur of original Genesis.  

‘All life is chemistry.’ Jan Baptista van Helmont, 1648

‘At least some life is chemistry,’ Freidrich Wohler 1828, (following his synthesistation of urea from ammonium chloride and silver cyanide, crossing what had been the sacrosanct divide between the chemical and biological worlds).

‘It is these chromosomes… that contain in some kind of code-script the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.’ Erwin Schrodinger, 1943

‘Sounds like a virus – may be a gene.’ Oswald Avery, 1943, letter to his brother

‘Artifical mutation kickstarted modern genetics. Using Muller’s X-rays, in 1940 two scientists named George Beadle and Edward Tatum created mutant versions of a bread mould called Neurospora….They proposed a law of biology, which caught on and has proved to be more or less correct: one gene specifies one enzyme. Geneticists began to chant it under their breath: one gene, one enzyme… but still the gene itself remained an inaccessible and mysterious thing, its ability to specify precise recipes for proteins made all the more baffling that it must itself be made of protein…True, there was something else in chromosomes: that dull litle nucleic acid called DNA. It has first been isolated, from the pus-soaked bandages of wounded 1869…by a Swiss doctor named Friedrich Miescher. Miescher himself guessed that DNA might be the key to heredity, writing to his uncle in 1892 with amazing presience that DNA might convey the herditary message ‘just as the worlds and concepts of all languages can find expression in 24-30 letters of the alphabet.’ But DNA had few fans; it was known to be a comparatively monotonous substance: how could it convey a message in just four varieties?’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘Just stirring a DNA solution is enough to break the longer molecules. Their chemistry was now known more correctly and moreover, the tetranucleotide hypothesis was dead, killed by some very beautiful work by a chemist at Columia, the Austrian refugee Erwin Chargaff. DNA was known to be a polymer, but with a very different backbone and with only four letters in its alphabet, rather than 20. Chargaff showed that DNA from different sources had different amounts of these four bases (as they were called). Perhaps DNA ws not such a dumb molecule after all. It might conceivably be long enough and varied enough to carry some genetic information. ‘ Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

‘Drawn by the presence of Muller, there arrived…a precocious and confident 19 year old…James Watson. He must have seemed an unlikely solution to the gene problem, but the solution he was…Watson developed an obsessive conviction that genes were made of DNA, not protein…Chance threw him together with a mind of equal brilliance captivated by the same conviction about the importance of DNA, Francis Crick. The rest is history…Within a few months, using other people’s laboriously gathered but under-analysed facts, they had made possibly the greatest scientific discovery of all time, the structure of DNA. Not even Archimedes leaping from his bath had been granted greater reason to boast, as Francis Crick did in the Eagle pub on 28 February 1953, ‘We’ve discovered the secret of life.’ Watson was mortified; he still feared they might have made a mistake. But they had not. All was suddenly clear: DNA contained a code written aliong the length of an elegant, intertwined staircase of a double helix, of potentially infinite length. That code copied iteself by means of chemical affinities between its letters and spelt out the recipes for proteins…The stunning significance of the structure of DNA was how simple it made everything seem and yet how beautiful.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

There can be no understanding of genetics

without beauty; power, structure, aesthetic,

are one. The identity of DNA; in operation,

its shape, principle - evolving silver spirals

as consist the living world - hallmark of life,

are beautiful in themselves, as well as genius

chemistry; weeping talent - ultimate creativity

with so few chemicals; so drawn from nothing.

‘Once the correct polypeptide chain had been synthesized, with all its side-chains in the right order, then, following the laws of chemistry, the protein would fold itself up correctly into a unique three-dimentional structure.’ Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

‘What is truly revolutionary about molecular biology in the post-Watson-Crick era is that it has become digital…[the] code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.’ Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, Weidenfeld and Nicolson , 1995

What is life but a code calling from darkness,

body and mind - meshing matter. Electrical

nexus to a living script, somehow pre-existent

to itself and all its products - suggesting mind,

power, force, some living principle where life

is expanded beyond our mortal and immortal

sense to some first agency, desire for life

among blank Universe - invention of life

from energy, idea, creative circumstances

among the heavens; an explosive concept.

But these are heavenly bones, these spirals;

the codes are symbols, active - powerful –

easier to understand now when noughts/

ones make realistic pictures on a screen.

‘DNA is, in every sense, a modern icon. For decades, it has enthralled scientists striving to understand its molecular meaning, provided an aesthetic template for artists, and challenged society with all sorts of ethical conundrums. The defining moment for DNA was the discovery of its structure. Published in the science journal Nature 50 years ago this month, James Watson and Francis Crick described how two strands of DNA embrace to form a double helix, and sparked a scientific revolution. To convince the skeptics that DNA truly was the material of inheritance - the so-called "stuff of life" - it was necessary to show how it could be copied and passed on from one generation to the next. Watson and Crick's model immediately hinted as to how DNA might be copied - each strand of the helix could act as a template to replicate the other. This turned out to be true and a couple of years later Arthur Kornberg and his coworkers isolated the DNA-copying enzyme, DNA polymerase, which was later recruited for many kinds of DNA technologies. Another quandary for contemporaries of Watson and Crick was how DNA with its 4-letter alphabet could encrypt the 20 kinds of protein building blocks, called amino acids. The genetic code was cracked in the 1960s, when Marshall Nirenberg, Har Khorana, and Severo Ochoa figured out that three letters of DNA encodes a particular amino acid. A three-letter word made of four possible letters could have more than enough permutations to encode the 20 amino acids. The sun rose for biotechnology in the 1970s, with some ingenious tricks for manipulating DNA. Paul Berg and Herbert Boyer devised a way of cutting and pasting together different pieces of DNA. Boyer, together with Stanley Cohen, then discovered how to clone DNA - by piecing together fragments of DNA from different species and popping them into bacteria, where they could be copied in limitless quantities, like a biological photocopier. In 1983, in a flash of inspiration while driving on a Californian highway, Kary Mullis figured out how to churn out millions of copies of a DNA segment in a test-tube by a process known as polymerase chain reaction. These DNA techniques, and others, soon became essential components of the modern genetic engineer's toolkit. If landing a man on the Moon has an equivalent in biology, it would have to be the sequencing of the human genome. And this lofty goal would not have been conceivable without moments of exceptional scientific insight, like the discovery of the double helix, plus years of refining sequencing technologies. Not to mention a cast of thousands - of both human and robotic sequencers - doggedly transforming the process into production-line efficiency. The rate of progress has been breathtaking.’ BBC News, 2003

‘A few years ago, if you had asked almost any biologist what was special about living things as opposed to non-living things, he would have told you about a special substance caled protoplasm…Living things are collections of molecules, like everything else. What is special is that these molecules are put together in much more complicated patterns than the molecules for non-living things, and this putting together is done by following programs, sets of instructions for how to develop which the organisms carry about inside themselves.’ Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Longman Scientific and Technical, 1986

The scroll began as parchment, illuminated

manuscript-speed – so agonisingly unrolled

through conjecture, imagination and limited

experiment to edges of current human vision;

paper moving like lead, feather pen stuttering,

until new players in the story gave their lines,

to make and grow the manuscript; even

one letter apiece, conspiring brains will

join isolated dots - break down ancient

doors perception builds to understand the world -

until that single man at the mountain foot becomes

an army at the citadel, armed with new technology

morphed from paper, pen, scribbled scratching

on a cave wall - shoveling this raw mix to find

elements - speeding on, gathering momentum -

accelerating, decoding crazily; unraveling

breathlessly, from small body of the worm

to the working chemistry of a human eye -

how it is tuned, modeled with light;

under skin-of-the-world, spotlights,

clarion-calls, banners, bright labels,

this music and poetry we flounder to describe,

relate; until this shifting monument - sparkling

bird which cannot be gilded; living monument,

working record of mankind - streaming, weaving

letter ribbons - flowing chemistries of holy orders

welded to imagination; glory, wonder, as essential

shining parts of the fabulous whole, indescribable

in full by computer-coded language - zeros, ones,

which will not bear the pictures, or full immensity.

Nor just by chemistry, biology, magic DNA;

for those who have seen, read, understood -

to communicate, express, expand knowledge,

hear them reaching for poetry; this language -

for bigger words dusted down from religion’s

creaky shelves; sensing the presence of grace.


Natural magic; organic script -

chemical dream factory making

reality from invisible stores.

Gateway to life, coagulation

of first water, light, energy;

writing codes for existence,

future beings of unmemoried self -

inventing coalescence of materials.

Power - self-contained pilot spark,

flicked to the ON position by life,

rising out of darkness, light

coming among molten stars;

original molecules re-ordered,

re-shaped, exploring plasticity.

Strung sparkling - snakely coiled,

on silver chemical strings, fizzing,

downloading from death and life -

self-scribed, still-scribing; working

themes, adapting lessons – learning,

incorporating the word of anything

alive - sifted, compatible, shifting,

surviving, to flexible environment.

Exchanging data, communicating -

dancing with brothers, messengers;

active, reactive - embroidering itself

in a perpetual movement of high art,

adaption, development of life;

working shimmering threads -

ecstatic twitchings of  royal chemistries -

each firing, twinkling Evolutionary jewel,

precious to the Universe - exhibited

in galleries of flesh, earth, leaf, light.


Timeline, from A Vision for the Future of Genomics Research, Nature, 2003

1869 - The chemical material DNA discovered in cells…1909 - Term "gene" first used and chemical composition of DNA found…1920 - Chromosomes proposed as mechanism by which inherited characteristics are passed on…1944 - DNA first connected to inheritance of traits…1951 - First sharp X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA…1953 The Double Helix - James Watson and Francis Crick solve the problem of the structure of DNA… Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl provide evidence that DNA acts as a template when being copied in replication…1956 - DNA made artificially. 1960 - Arthur Kornberg synthesizes DNA in vitro, showing that an enzyme (called DNA polymerase) will produce new strands using precursors, an energy source and a template DNA molecule... Francois Jacob, Jacques Monod and colleagues start to elucidate way in which genes are controlled: they propose that DNA sequences outside the region that codes for protein respond to signals from 'operator' genes that encode molecules that 'switch' genes on or off. Genetic code proposed - Sydney Brenner, Francis Crick and colleagues propose that DNA code is written in 'words' (called codons) formed of three DNA bases. DNA sequence is built from four different bases, so a total of 64 (4x4x4) possible codons can be produced. They also propose that a particular set of RNA molecules, subsequently called transfer RNAs (tRNAs), act to 'decode' the DNA….1966 - DNA is found to be present not only in chromosomes but also in the itochondria….Cellular messenger RNA discovered - Brenner, Jacob and Meselson show that short-lived RNA molecules, which they called messenger RNA (mRNA) carry the genetic instructions from DNA to structures in the cell called ribosomes, which they also showed to be the site of protein synthesis …1969 -  First single gene isolated…1970 - First artificial gene made…1973 - Genetic engineering begins with ability to insert genetic material….1976 - Artificial gene inserted into a bacterium and works normally…1977- First DNA whole genome sequenced Sanger and colleagues sequence the first DNA genome – of bacteriophage phi-x174 (5375 bases). 1978 - Bacteria engineered to produce insulin.

1980 - Shotgun method developed Sanger and colleagues developed random shotgun method to prepare templates for DNA sequencing…1981 – A gene transferred from one animal species to another…1982- First whole genome shotgun (WGS) sequence - Sanger and colleagues sequence entire genome of bacteriophage lambda using a random shotgun technique…1983 - First artificial chromosome…1984 - Realisation that some, non-functioning DNA is different in each individual - genetic fingerprinting is born. 1987 - Cost predictions for the human genome sequence.  Estimated that one worker using the current technology can produce about 50,000 bases of finished DNA sequence per year at a cost of about $1 to $2 per base. The human genome would therefore take 60,000 person-years and cost $3bn to $6bn to complete…1988 - The Human Genome Organisation aims to map the complete sequence of DNA. 1989 - Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) - an international association of researchers involved in the Human Genome Project was created to help coordinate activities and to assist in sharing of data and resources. 1990 - US Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health submit formal proposal to Congress for 15-year project to sequence the human genome. 1990 - Project to sequence 3 Mb of C. elegans genome coordinated between UK Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Washington University, St Louis, MO, USA. Jointly funded by UK MRC and US National Institutes of Health…1992 - Sulston and Waterston seek funding from the Wellcome Trust for five-year proposal to sequence 40Mb of human genome. Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council in UK join forces in Human Genome Project.  HYPERLINK "" The Wellcome Trust, the world's largest medical charity, had made a major contribution to setting up the Sanger Centre near Cambridge, UK. The  HYPERLINK "" Medical Research Council had funded much of the UK's effort in DNA sequencing…1993 - Mice are cured of cystic fibrosis as a result of gene therapy…

1994 - First proposal for working draft of the human genome sequence by 2001 - In meetings in the US, John Sulston and Bob Waterston propose to produce a 'draft' sequence of the human genome by 2000. This involves focusing resources on larger centres and emphasizing sequence acquisition - and asserts value of draft quality sequence to biomedical research. Discussion started with Wellcome Trust as possible sponsors. 1995 - First genome of free-living organism sequenced - Haemophilus influenzae genome (1,830,137 base-pairs), by team from The Institute for Genomic Research…1996 -  First international meeting discussed strategy and agreed on release of sequence data. Specifically, (ethics) (i) 'Primary Genomic Sequence Should be in the Public Domain ... to encourage research and development and to maximise its benefit to society’…. 1996 - Physical map with 30,000 landmarks. Maps allow researchers to position sequence on the genome relative to a landmark - map locates the genes for most known proteins and is up to threefold more accurate than previous version… 1996 - After six years work, brewer's yeast genome is decoded, the most complex organism so far…1998 - Genome sequence of C. elegans finished C. elegans has a genome of about 100 Mb. It is a model organism used in a range of biology. The C. elegans genome was the first from a multicellular organism to be finished…1999 - First human chromosome sequenced HGP team led by the Sanger Centre produced finished sequence for chromosome 22 - about 34 million base-pairs, includes at least 550 genes…2000 - Human draft sequence announced simultaneously in US and UK - in joint event, Celera Genomics announced completion of its 'first assembly' of the genome. 2001 - The first draft of the human genome published in Nature and Science magazines - Nature has 60-page article by Human Genome Project partners, studies of mapping and variation, as well as analysis of sequence by experts in different areas of biology. Science publishes the article by Celera on their assembly of HGP and Celera data as well as analyses of the use of the sequence. 2003 – Human Genome Project completed two years ahead of schedule...2004 – International Human Genome consortium publishes finished Human Genome in Nature magazine2005 - Chimpanzee Genome Sequenced…2006 – Chromosome 8 sequenced.’

Spliced from BBC Science Online and, with some alien additions

‘No-one is sure exactly how many genes there are in the human genome, but the latest estimate suggests between 20,000-25,000 - barely a third more than a fruit fly! During the Human Genome Project, researchers placed bets on the number of human genes. Their estimates ranged from 27,462 to 200,000…‘

‘The successful completion of the HGP [Human Genome Project] this year thus represents an opportunity to look forward and offer a blueprint for the future of genomics research over the next several years.The vision presented here addresses a different world from that reflected in earlier plans published in 1990, 1993 and 1998 (refs 15–17)…Now, with the effective completion of these goals, we offer a broader and still more ambitious vision, appropriate for the true dawning of the genomic era. The challenge is to capitalize on the immense potential of the HGP to improve human health and well-being.The articulation of a new vision is an opportunity to explore transformative new approaches to achieve health benefits. Although genome-based analysis methods are rapidly permeating biomedical research, the challenge of establishing robust paths from genomic information to improved human health remains immense. Current efforts to meet this challenge are largely organized around the study of specific diseases...’ A Vision for the Future of Genomics Research, US National Human Genome Research Institute, 2003

Such story and dance in the soul of Science

Such story and dance in the soul of Science -

unfurling of verses, broken poems; workings

recycled, reclaimed, re-moulded, tried again.

Such lights and unexplained phenomena;

what place must be ascribed to dreams -

visions which brought new truths to bear;

what special name this modern beauty

found in cells and stars - transcending

explanation, undeniable in equation -

natural law, chaos, chemical functioning

of the gene - enthralling, agonising story

from heart of water to Human Genome -

what name this light followed, illuminating;

will o’ the wisp to pilot, torch, lighthouse -

to marshes, fields; bombs and vaccinations.


Breaking perception’s plastic gates;

crumbling sod of skin, leaf, earth -

into vanishing crumbs, and beyond -

where light comes; the unseen wires

flow, vibrating as the eye reads -

in darkness of test-tube and slide.


We thought ourselves hawks,

but we were grounded, blind.

We thought ourselves marble,

when we were dancing atoms.

We felt ourselves god-like; kings,

alien species, when we are leaves;

evolution of earth, water, light,

but energy, and space between.


Such slow diving into ourselves,

to our divine seed, scripted heart,

with instruments beyond our sight,

focus; unknown fields, chemistries,

until symbols in the dark,

written in figures of light.

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
        Mendel’s Peas
        The Human Genome Project
        Some history of the
        Human Genome Project
    Romantic Science
    Some Special Genes
    X & Y

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