Johann Gregor Mendel inspires − the basis of success is an idea

The author of the final part of our podcast serie is the Dean of the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University, Professor Tomáš Kašparovský. He talks about why Mendel is inspiring for him personally, as a scientist and educator, and about pushing the boundaries of knowledge and science.

24 Apr 2023 Tomáš Kašparovský

Tomáš Kašparovský in front of the painting of J. G. Mendel, which is located in the meeting room of the Dean's Office of the MU Faculty of Science on the 4th floor of the University Campus Bohunice. Photo: Martina Petříková

If the Augustinian abbot Gregor Johann Mendel, instead of experimenting with peas, had dedicated himself to discovering the causes of aging and the search for the elixir of eternal youth, and if he had been as successful in his endeavors as he was in investigating the laws of genetics, he would have lived to be two hundred years old last summer.

However, science and development know no “ifs”, so instead we have used the anniversary of Mendel’s birth to commemorate his important discoveries, reflect on his legacy and remember what kind of man he was. On the other hand, it is extremely important that his life and work inspire us in the present, and that we take something from it with us for the future.

One of the highlights of the celebrations and events that took place throughout last year was the international scientific meeting, ‘the Mendel Genetics Conference’, that took place in Brno at the end of July. Around 400 experts and scientists from all over the world, including three Nobel Prize winners, discussed the latest findings in the field and sought answers to key questions about the origin of plant and human cell life, evolution, heredity, genetic diseases and the application of new genomic technologies in medicine and agriculture.

In addition to these professional topics, this unique meeting of scientists and admirers of the founder of genetics showed that the fame of Mendel as a person has spread far beyond the borders of our country. For example, the Czech public received a small imaginary ‘slap on the wrist’ from the Nobel laureates when they were telling journalists, with emotion in their voices, what it means for them to visit the places where Mendel lived and worked. “Thanks to Mendel, Brno is a Mecca for geneticists, and yet little is said or known about him in the Czech Republic”, the Nobel laureates agreed.

Perhaps thanks to last year’s anniversary and celebrations, public and student awareness about Mendel will have increased. He was not just a geneticist and scientist. During the celebrations, we remembered what kind of circumstances he was born into, what kind of student and teacher he was, and how, from a young man who had to provide for himself, he became the abbot of the Augustinian monastery in Staré Brno, where he found refuge. Thanks to literary sources, publications and exhibitions, everyone can now see that Mendel was an extremely interesting historical figure.

In addition to many other events, exhibitions, conferences and publications, our science faculty prepared a series of podcasts, ‘Mendel the Man’, in which they presented the characteristic features of Mendel’s personality. Not only did they explain his life story in the context of the times, but they also pointed out that, while he is mainly known today as the founder of genetics, he also devoted himself to beekeeping, mathematics, physics, chemistry and meteorology. Thanks to his interest in the last of these, he created one of the longest series of meteorological records in the country.

Based on his life story, I always teach my own pupils that students and scientists should be inquisitive, and that study and science should be undertaken for the joy of understanding. The goal cannot just be to try and gain recognition from the professional community, or in today’s language, a high number of citations and publications. The real motivation for scientists should be the pure desire to know and understand.

Diligence and honest work are prerequisites for success. It is incredible how meticulously Mendel collected data, how systematic and orderly he was. What Mendel spent his whole life doing, today’s devices can do it in much less time, and yet we cannot extract and use all the data obtained in this way.

Recent archeological and anthropological field research, which enabled scientists to search for traces of Mendel’s own DNA, has contributed to improving awareness of Mendel’s personality among both scientists and the public. From the first results of the research, in which experts from the Laboratory of Biological and Molecular Anthropology (LAMORFA) at the faculty of science participated, we learnt that Gregor Johann Mendel was of small stature, at approximately 168 cm tall, had an above-average skull volume and a skeleton that was not too ‘worn out’.

The researchers succeeded in reconstructing 99 percent of the coding part of Mendel’s genome, which revealed that he had a significant hereditary predisposition to cardiac arrhythmia. Combined with kidney disease, high blood pressure and his smoking, this syndrome probably contributed to his early death. Though he died at the age of 62, his remains were those of a man three years older.

Looking back at Mendel’s life and work shows that data alone is not enough to discover new things and push the boundaries of knowledge. The basis of success is an idea, it all starts with that, followed by a bit of scientific luck. For his experiments, Mendel chose peas, which are among the oldest cultivated crops in the world, already being enjoyed by hunters and gatherers during the Stone Age, the seeds serving as a storehouse of nutrients for periods of hunger. If Mendel had chosen a different crop for his experiments, it would have been much harder to reach his goal.

At the same time, he showed great courage when he insisted on the validity of his results, even when they were not accepted by the professional community at the time. He was not discouraged even by partial setbacks, such as when he failed his teacher’s exams because his views were not in accordance with the teachings of the time. This is another powerful message that we should remember, and that the next generation of scientists should follow; namely, that “easy roads lead nowhere”.

So, I would like all students, and indeed all of us, to find a little piece of Mendel in ourselves and at least symbolically plant a small pea of curiosity that will lead everyone along the road to further knowledge.

The extent to which last year’s Mendel anniversary improved his reputation, whether at home or abroad, will be evaluated by future generations, perhaps on the 300th anniversary of his birth. For me personally, he will forever remain a huge inspiration and role model.

Translation: Kevin F. Roche
Editor: Zuzana Jayasundera

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