Thanks to Mendel, Brno is a Mecca for geneticists

A visit to the Augustinian Abbey in Old Brno, where Johan Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, lived and worked, is the same as visiting Mecca for world-renowned scientists in the field of genetics and related fields. Nobel Prize laureates and other scientists who came to Brno for the major international Mendel Genetics Conference agreed. The conference is taking place in Brno from 20 to 23 July and is the culmination of the bicentenary celebrations of Mendel's birth.

21 Jul 2022 Tereza Fojtová

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Scientists gathered from all corners of the world to debate key issues in biology, the origin and evolution of life, the genetics of plants and animals, the medical genetics and the application of new genomic technologies in medicine and agriculture. Many of the scientists have not come to Brno for the first time. "To tell the truth, this is my third visit to Brno, although I have never been inside the Abbey. For a geneticist, a pilgrimage to Brno is like visiting Mecca! It's very inspiring," revealed Diana W. Bianchi, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

"Gregor Johann Mendel's legacy is so profound that terms derived from his name are still used in the English language today," stressed one of the Nobel Prize laureates present, Thomas R. Cech, an American biochemist of Czech origin who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989. "Moreover, the idea of an abbot studying peas in the garden of a monastery can still inspire young people today who want to explore and understand the natural laws of this world," he added.

The English geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001, has also visited Brno many times. "I first came to Brno in 1981, back in the Cold War era. I am a geneticist and I wanted to see the place where Mendel made his ground-breaking discoveries. I managed to visit the monastery, found a small Mendel Museum and was also at his grave. All this made a strong impression on me," said Sir Paul Nurse earlier, who in his paper at the conference asked the question "What is life?" in the context of the existence of cell life and the laws of biology.

According to Bianchi, the main current issues and challenges in the field include the implementation of rapidly evolving technologies and their use to improve human health. "Health care providers themselves still lack sufficient formal education in the principles of medical genetics, so they may not be well aware of, for example, the possibilities but also the limitations of DNA sequencing," Bianchi pointed out. As the technology of genetic sequencing and DNA manipulation advances, she said, ethical questions about how and when to use it increase.

Scientists also wonder how Mendel might have reacted if a prophet had told him that one day his scientific descendants would be able to track tens of thousands of traits, in a single test lasting only a few days, across species from viruses to humans, whereas his capabilities at the time allowed him to compare only a few traits at a time. "Mendel would be very surprised that all 20,000 genes in the human genome can be sequenced in a matter of days. As an expert in mathematics and physics, he would certainly be very interested in linking mathematics and biology through computational biology and the analysis of large data sets," Bianchi believes. She stressed that Mendel's publication Experiments in Plant Hybridization was "one of the true great eurekas of Western Biology that effectively reshaped our worldview.”

The importance of Mendel's discoveries for today's world is being debated by nearly 400 experts and scientists from around the world, including three Nobel Prize laureates, at a scientific conference organised at the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth. In addition to Thomas Cech of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Sir Paul Nurse of the Francis Crick Institute in London, 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel will speak.

The conference programme includes discussion sessions focused on the history and future of genetics, new technologies and specific topics related to ethical issues in genetics.

The organizers of the scientific conference, which is supported by UNESCO, are the Augustinian Abbey in Old Brno, Masaryk University, Mendel University, Moravian Museum and Společně, o.p.s.

Thomas R. Cech, the American biochemist of Czech origin who won the Nobel Prize in 1989 together with Sidney Altman for the discovery of the catalytic activity of ribonucleic acid. Their work is of great theoretical and practical importance to the study of life on Earth. Cech has been at the University of Colorado Boulder since 1978, where he teaches and directs the biochemistry laboratory.

Paul Nurse, the English geneticist who first discovered the cdc2 gene, which plays a key role in cell cycle regulation. Nurse's team identified the same gene in humans. He proved that the rules of the cell cycle are the same in plants, animals and humans. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for this discovery which has a major impact on cancer treatment.

Diana W. Bianchi, the director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health. She oversees the research on pediatric health and development, maternal health, reproductive health, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and rehabilitation medicine, among other areas.

Mike Stratton, the director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Chief Executive Officer of the Wellcome Genome Campus. His primary research interests have been in the genetics of cancer. His early research focused on inherited susceptibility. Mike mapped and identified the major high-risk breast cancer susceptibility gene BRCA2 and subsequently a series of moderate-risk breast cancer and other cancer susceptibility genes.

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