William Bateson (pictured), an English biologist born on this day in 1861, was a pioneer in the field of genetics. In fact, he invented the word. In a letter to a colleague written in 1905 (shown here), Bateson addressed the need for a single word to describe the study of inherited physical characteristics, such as eye colour. “Genetics might do,” he wrote in the final line of the letter. At the time, little was known about how these characteristics are inherited. After looking at flower colour and pollen shape in sweet peas, Bateson and his colleagues, Reginald Punnet and Edith Saunders, noticed that some combinations were more common than others. It’s now known that this is because the genes that underpin these traits are located close to each other on the plant’s DNA. This knowledge has helped scientists to understand how physical characteristics are inherited in people.
Written by Honor Pollard
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