Early Mendelian Geneticist; Originator of Term “Genetics”
Bateson was born in Whitby, England, on August 8, 1861. He attended Cambridge University, where he developed a passion for zoology, and graduated with firstclass honors in 1883. He spent the next two years in the United States investigating the embryological development of echinoderms (a group of various sea animals). Noting that the larval stage of echinoderms possesses nervoussystem structures similar to those of chordates (a group of animals having a stiff rod below a single nerve fiber at some point in their life cycle), he proposed that chordates might have evolved from primitive echinoderms, a theory that is now widely accepted.
Bateson staunchly believed in the theory of evolution, but while studying embryology, he began to question the element of CHARLES DARWIN’s theory that described evolution as a slow accumulation of small changes. His skepticism arose from evidence suggesting that abrupt and significant changes occur both in individuals and entire species. He began searching for a solution to this puzzle in the laws of heredity and, upon his return to Cambridge, began investigations into breeding and heredity.
At the same time, in 1900, the scientific community rediscovered the research of Austrian botanist GREGOR MENDEL, which demonstrated that heredity is governed by the transmission of certain elements (now called genes) from parent to offspring. Bateson recognized the significance of Mendel’s work and published an English translation of it in 1902. The book was an enormous success, elevating Bateson to prominence in academic circles.
Bateson established the application of Mendel’s theories to animals with experiments on the inheritance of comb shape in fowl (Mendel had studied plants). He also extended Mendel’s peaplant experiments and discovered that the heredity of some characteristics is controlled by more than one element.
Bateson coined the term “genetics” in 1906 and was appointed the first professor of genetics at Cambridge University in 1908. Bateson did not agree with the growing consensus among scientists that chromosomes are involved in heredity, and he thus fell into academic disrepute in his later years. He died in London on February 8, 1926.
William Bateson’s Legacy
Bateson was instrumental in spreading the news of Mendel’s remarkable research, launching a flurry of studies and paving the way for a more advanced understanding of the connection between genetics and evolution.
Genetics made rapid progress in the twentieth century, due partly to Bateson’s promotion of Mendel’s work. When Mendel’s papers were first rediscovered, his theories were highly controversial. The success of Bateson’s translation and corroborative research inspired further investigations, and soon most biologists agreed that Mendel’s theories were sound. Mendel’s work is still considered to have laid the foundation of modern genetics, a discipline crucial to all fields of biological science.
Bateson’s experiments demonstrated that some characteristics appear to be inherited together, which led to the discovery of an exception to Mendel’s laws. According to Mendel’s laws, the inheritance of each gene is independent of the inheritance of other genes. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Thomas Hunt Morgan proved that genes reside on chromosomes, and he went on to show that when two genes are close together on a chromosome (“linked”), they are inherited together as a pair. This phenomenon, later called gene linkage, explained Bateson’s results.
The question, first posed by Bateson, of whether evolution progresses slowly in small steps, or abruptly in large steps, foreshadowed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Darwin proposed in the midnineteenth century that evolution occurs through the accumulation of many small changes. In the 1970s, two prominent evolutionary biologists, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, suggested that perhaps evolution occurs during short bursts of change which interrupt longer periods of stability. This punctuated equilibrium theory remains controversial.
William Bateson – 1861-1926