1933 – USA
‘The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity’ (1915), ‘The Theory of the Gene’ (1926)’
Starting with Mendel’s laws of segregation and independent assortment, Morgan investigated why there are far fewer chromosomes – the long thread-like structures present in the nucleus of every living cell, which grow and divide during cell splitting, – than there are ‘units of heredity’. Morgan could not see how these few chromosomes could account for all the changes that occur from one generation to the next.
Mendel’s ‘factors of heredity’ had been renamed ‘genes’ in 1909 by the Dane Wilhelm Johannsen.
When the organism forms its reproductive cells (gametes), the genes segregate and pass to different gametes.
Since it had been separately established that chromosomes play an important part in inheritance, then groups of genes had to be present on a single chromosome.
If all the genes were arranged along chromosomes, and all chromosomes were transmitted intact from one generation to the next, then many characteristics would be inherited together. This implicitly invalidates Mendel’s law of independent assortment, which dictated that hereditary traits caused by genes would occur in all possible mathematical combinations in a series of descendants, independent of each other.
Experimental evidence often seemed to back-up the mathematical forecasts for characteristics present in descendants that Mendel had suggested; Morgan felt that the law of independent assortment could not accurately model the process of arriving at the end result.
He began his experiments with the fruit fly, which has just four pairs of chromosomes, in 1908.
He observed a mutant white-eyed male fly, which he extracted for breeding with ordinary red-eyed females. Over subsequent generations of interbred offspring, the white-eyed trait returned in some descendants, all of which turned out to be males. Clearly, certain genetic traits were not occurring independently of each other but were being passed on in groups.
Rather than invalidating Mendel’s law of independent assortment, a simple adjustment was required to unite it with Hunt’s belief in chromosomes to produce his thesis.
He suggested that the law of independent assortment did apply – but only to genes found on different chromosomes. For those on the same chromosome, linked traits would be passed on; usually a sex-related factor with other specific features (such as, the male sex and the white-eyed characteristic).
The results of his work convinced Morgan that genes were arranged on chromosomes in a linear manner and could be mapped. Further testing showed that, as chromosomes actually break apart and re-form during the production of sperm and egg cells, linked traits could occasionally be broken during the exchange of genes (recombination) that occurred between pairs of chromosomes during the process of cell division. He hypothesised that the nearer on the chromosome the genes were located to each other, the less likely the linkages were to be broken. Thus by measuring the occurrence of breakages he could work out the position of the genes along the chromosome.
In 1911 he produced the first chromosome map showing the position of five genes linked to gender characteristics.
In 1933 Hunt Morgan received the Nobel Prize for Physiology.
- Study of fruit fly chromosomes improves understanding of evolution and fertility (sciencedaily.com)
- Learn.Genetics (learn.genetics.utah.edu)