Why scientists dug up the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, and analyzed his DNA

Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) priest and botanist whose work laid the foundation for the study of genetics.

Hulton Archives/Getty Images/Max Posner/NPR

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Hulton Archives/Getty Images/Max Posner/NPR

Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) priest and botanist whose work laid the foundation for the study of genetics.

Hulton Archives/Getty Images/Max Posner/NPR

When the man known as the “Father of Genetics” turns 200, how will you celebrate?

By digging up his body and sequencing his DNA, of course.

That’s what a team of scientists in the Czech Republic did this year to celebrate Gregor Mendel, the scientist and monk whose experiments in the mid-19th century laid the foundation for modern genetics.

Mendel lived and worked in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. With 2022 marking the bicentennial of Mendel’s birth, local researchers there—where Mendel remains a hero in his hometown—were looking for ways to remember the man and honor the moment. Possibilities included a festival, a science conference, and a statue.

Astronomer Jiri Dusek, director of the Brno Observatory and Planetarium, asked if the founder of genetics had ever undergone any genetic testing.

“That was the beginning,” says geneticist Sarka Pospisilova, who is also Vice-Chancellor for Research at Masaryk University in Brno.

At first, she said, the idea of ​​analyzing Mendel’s genes seemed “crazy.”

However, Pospisilova went to various specialists at the university to ask what might be possible.

“I asked anthropologists who had experience analyzing the remains of various historical figures,” she recalls. She also consulted with archaeologists.

Exhuming Mendel from his grave in Brno and doing genetic testing on his remains turned out to be a doable project – as long as they could get permission from the Augustinians. This is the religious order to which Mendel belonged, and which stayed with him: the Augustinian tomb in the city’s central cemetery was believed to contain Mendel’s body.

Local religious leaders consulted with the Augustinians in Prague, their bishop, and finally the Augustinians in Rome. In the end, permission was granted.

Philip Bardey, a molecular biologist on the research team, felt that a great sense of responsibility came as part of the effort.

“Gregor Mendel is someone who teaches the first genetics course at the university,” says Bardi. “Everyone feels he’s so important, especially here in Brno. He’s a role model… who stood at the start of everything we do.”

Mendel was ahead of his time in the way he used mathematics to study inheritance patterns in pea plants when looking at things like flower color and plant height, Barde says.

“He analyzed a collection of about 25,000 plants to get his numbers right and to create the formulas,” says Bardi. “And so in that regard he was also kind of prescient and one step ahead.”

Mendel’s plant experiments were well known and respected during his lifetime, but his fame really took off after 1900, when geneticists rediscovered his work and realized its implications.

says Daniel Fairbanks, a plant geneticist and author of a book titled Gregor Mendel: His Life and Legacy.

Excavations of Mendel’s tomb revealed five coffins stacked one on top of the other. That was a bit surprising, given that the tombstone bears the names of only four Augustinian brothers.

Mendel’s coffin appears to be the metal at the bottom. It was filled with some newspapers, dated shortly before his death, which seemed very incisive. However, Bardi says they wanted better evidence that this coffin contained Mendel’s remains.

“We actually came up with the idea of ​​going through his personal belongings because we knew we needed some reference material to really confirm his identity,” says Bardee.

Local curators allowed them to scan such items as Mendel’s microscopes, his spectacles, written records of his atmospheric measurements, and a pack of cigarettes. The team also looked carefully inside Mendel’s favorite books and, in a book on astronomy, found poetry.

By looking at the DNA from it all, and comparing it to the DNA in the skeleton, they felt certain they had found Mendel’s body.

His DNA sequencing revealed genetic variants associated with diabetes, heart problems, and kidney disease. The variant that intrigued Fairbanks was a gene linked to epilepsy and neurological problems.

“He had suffered throughout his life from some kind of mental or neurological disorder that caused him to have very severe nervous breakdowns,” says Fairbanks. “This may have been a genetic condition – and this was an amazing discovery these scientists made.”

Fairbanks reflected on how Mendel felt about having his grave disturbed to satisfy the curiosity of today’s scientists.

“I tend to think, from what I know of him, that he might have been very happy about it,” says Fairbanks. “But of course we can’t ask him directly.”

Pospíšilová leans towards this theory as well.

“We think he’d be happy. We know he was very enthusiastic about all kinds of research,” she says—noting that just before he died, Mendel ordered a thorough autopsy.

“He wasn’t against searching his body,” she says.

Although Mendel knew nothing about DNA or the role it played in the patterns of inheritance he observed closely, she says, he likely “won’t mind being part of the research, even after his death.”

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