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Genes and genetics: the language of scientific discovery

It is sometimes the case that a scientific field experiences such dramatic progress that the rate at which new discoveries are made outpaces the language needed to describe them. How would it be if there were no words to describe the results of your latest experiment or the structures you see using your new microscope? How would you convey your findings without the words to do so? You would need a whole new vocabulary. Such enormous advances occurred in cell biology and genetics in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the effects of this period on the language of science are reflected in the number of new words coined at this time as scientists struggled to explain their ideas.

Describing the cell

By the 1860s the foundations for such advances were already in place: the importance of the cell as a structural and functional unit of living organisms was accepted, and the identity and structure of subcellular constituents was becoming clearer as microscopes and microscopical techniques advanced. Cell biologists were suddenly able to study living tissue at a level of detail which was previously impossible, and having named the structures identified they were able to describe what they were seeing, if not fully to understand its significance. This, aided by the work of breeders against the backdrop of Darwin’s recent theory of evolution by natural selection, set the stage for an incredibly fruitful and important period for genetics.

Modern genetics is often said to begin with Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who performed detailed hybridization experiments on peas. Through systematic, quantitative analysis of his results, Mendel drew up the basic laws of genetic inheritance we still use today. Although he published his work in 1866, unfortunately for Mendel, his ideas would not receive the recognition they deserved for almost 40 years, until developments in other areas of biology had caught up.

Meanwhile, in the same period, cell biologists were making progress of their own. Making use of special dyes, the German biologist Walther Flemming discovered chromatin, material contained in the cell nucleus—named from the Greek χρομα, or ‘colour’, simply for its appearance as coloured matter. Flemming later described and named mitosis, the process of cell division, from the Greek μįτος meaning thread, referring to the form of the cellular material during this process. Two years later came the identification of the chromosome, the name—coined in German by Wilhelm von Waldemeyer—simply meaning ‘coloured body’. More than ten years would pass before the rediscovery of Mendel’s work revealed the full significance of these important discoveries, but the mechanics of inheritance were beginning to make themselves apparent and the new language was providing a framework on which to explain his ideas.

Genes and genetics

During the 1890s several botanists in continental Europe independently began to think along the same lines as Mendel. In 1900 three papers were published within a few weeks of each other, marking the beginning of a new episode in the study of inheritance. The Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, the German Carl Correns, and the Austrian Erich von Tschermak, each from his own work, confirmed the conclusions that Mendel had reached 35 years earlier. Although it is these three who are usually credited with the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, it was the British biologist William Bateson who was largely responsible for popularizing Mendel’s ideas and, more importantly from a lexicographical point of view, for inventing the vocabulary to go with them. Bateson’s research career was perhaps not as illustrious as that of some of his contemporaries but his legacy remains in the form of much of the basic terminology of modern genetics that we use today.

In the few years after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, Bateson wrote of Mendel’s laws and Mendelian principles for the ideas laid down nearly 40 years earlier, and introduced to the English language the concepts of recessive and dominant traits that Mendel had written of in his original 1866 publication. He coined the term allelomorph (later shortened to allele), for one of several alternative forms of the same gene, adding to it the terms homozygote and heterozygote for individuals carrying the same or different alleles at a given locus, and referred for the first time to genetic characters being epistatic and hypostatic. More prominently, the modern sense of genetic is also attributed to Bateson, along with genetics itself as a word for the scientific study of inherited variation. The latter is first mentioned in a personal letter from him dated 18 April 1905, in which he writes rather modestly:

“No single word in common use quite gives this meaning, and if it were desirable to coin one, ‘Genetics’ might do.”

This does not seem a confident assertion of intent to name this fledgling field of study, but the rapid adoption and persistence of the word attest to both the need for a name and Bateson’s appropriate choice. The now-familiar term gene was itself coined (originally in German) several years later by the Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen, from the earlier term of de Vries, pangene, for the same concept (itself influenced by Darwin’s pangenesis). This replaced the various traits, factors, and units favoured by earlier authors and completed the set of basic terminology for this new science.

The coinages throughout this period represent a merging of the work and languages of the different scientists of the day. It could be said that a kind of linguistic natural selection took place as many new words were suggested to explain the emerging ideas, some of which died out and were never accepted into general use, and some—like Bateson’s genetics—which persisted and became commonplace. Without Bateson, perhaps we would speak of ‘de Vriesian genetics’, perhaps Mendel and the words he introduced would be forgotten, or perhaps someone else would have discovered and championed them. It seems clear, however, that no single thinker in this period was dominant; each participated and contributed to the wider understanding of the field. It is certain that without the language introduced by these remarkable men in this remarkable period, their ideas, which were to launch genetics on its way into the next century, could not have been explained.

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