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Brno: The humble origins of modern genetics

Visit St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno to discover the amazing story of the Czech monk who experimented on the simple green pea

Brno: The humble origins of modern genetics
St Thomas’s Abbey, Brno, Czech Republic. Image: Alamy

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The two girls look distinctly unimpressed. Their faces register only incredulous disgust about being dragged thousands of kilometres to look at a bit of grass outside an abbey. Dad is clearly on something of a pilgrimage, and is at pains to express how vitally important this place is.

In a North American drawl, he splutters: “But this is the birthplace of modern science!”

His children may not be overly enthused about it, but the exasperated father is right. DNA profiling, evolutionary theory, many medical treatments, food technologies and many other facets of today’s world owe a lot to this otherwise unremarkable place.

St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno owes its place in history to a green-fingered monk.

It sounds absurd, but that former abbot was Gregor Mendel, and his experiments with the humble garden pea revealed the principles of genetic inheritance. The greenhouse where much of Mendel’s work was done has now been reduced to mere foundations, but a few of his flowerbeds are still blooming. And, as the signs explain, the predominance of red over white begonias is all down to the genetic laws that Mendel discovered.

Next to the wonderful world of multi-coloured begonias and their dominant and recessive alleles is a small (but rather swish) museum. The first chunk of it is largely biographical and hints at different times. Back then, joining a monastery wasn’t about shutting yourself off from the world – Mendel was from a poor family and becoming a novice was the best way of continuing his education. His initial interest in physics morphed into a fascination with agriculture and horticulture, and in 1854 he began experiments with peas.

He started selecting those with different characteristics, and bred them to see what happened. He noticed a pattern and presented his findings to a local school in 1865. A year later, they were published in the Proceedings of the Natural Science Society, and then swiftly forgotten about until the write-up was rediscovered in 1900.

This is staggering. Given how fast genetic science has developed, and the changes to society that have come about as a result, it’s difficult not to think of what might have happened if Mendel hadn’t been ignored for 35 years.

The second part of the museum goes into those very theories – that genes are inherited, traits are in dominant and recessive pairs, and that there’s a ratio of how they pair off. It’s GCSE science, but made considerably easier with touchscreen presentations.

But the real lesson isn’t in how genetic inheritance works – it’s in how science works. On display are some of Mendel’s logs, which he kept meticulously. The discovery didn’t come from a moment of genius; eureka moments and flashes of brilliance sound sexy, but they rarely exist. Usually, it’s dogged persistence, recording data and comparing it to statistical models. Mendel’s work was about counting how many peas were green or yellow, and how many were round or wrinkled, over a sustained period of time.

It’s easy to see why a little girl being dragged along by her dad might not find this overly exciting. But amazing advances come from the most mundane things.