Uphill Battle to Honor Monk Sci 288:37,39,2000
rcjohnsen at aol.com
Fri May 19 00:02:49 EST 2000
Uphill Battle to Honor Monk Who Demystified Heredity
Scientists are renewing a drive to found a "Cold Spring Harbor East" in tribute
to Gregor Mendel, whose work was rediscovered 100 years ago
BRNO, CZECH REPUBLIC--In what may be the most unlikely birthplace of a science,
the discipline of genetics took root in a humble garden in the courtyard of a
monastery in this ancient Moravian city. Today, a weathered stone foundation is
all that remains of the garden's hothouse, and only a grass yard and a lone
sycamore mark the spot where Gregor Mendel, an obscure Augustinian monk, bred
pea plants nearly a century and a half ago to learn how traits are handed down
from one generation to the next. What Mendel learned from those pea plants
revealed the fundamental laws of inheritance.
A monk and his disciples. Pavel Braveny and Eduard Schmidt are hoping Brno will
host more than a statue in tribute to Mendel.
CREDIT: R. KOENIG
To help mark the rediscovery of Mendel's work 100 years ago, a group of
researchers has drafted ambitious plans to transform part of his old monastery,
which now has only a small museum, into a modern center that would host
scientific meetings and perhaps a bioinformatics institute--a kind of Cold
Spring Harbor East. "We want to link Mendel's heritage to the international
community of scientists," says Emil Palecek, a molecular biologist at the Czech
Academy's Institute of Biophysics in Brno.
If Palecek and his colleagues succeed, their center would be a triumph not
only for Mendel's legacy, but also for a discipline still haunted in Eastern
Europe by one of the ugliest scientific frauds of last century--Lysenkoism,
which poisoned genetics behind the Iron Curtain in the early years of the Cold
War. But even though they have won endorsements from high-powered individuals
such as Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson and Czech President Vaclav Havel,
backers of the so-called Mendel Center have so far received only a lukewarm
response from the European scientific community, including potential funders.
They are now broadening their appeal through symposia this year to mark the
centennial of the establishment of Mendelian genetics.
History suggests they face an uphill battle. Attempts to grandly honor
Mendel's scientific legacy, like the monk's own efforts to promote his laws of
heredity, have been a study in frustration. Mendel was born in 1822 in what was
then a province of Austrian Silesia and studied at the University of Vienna
before moving to Brno, where he did all of his landmark research. He first
outlined his findings in a series of lectures in 1865 and published his seminal
work, "Experiments in Plant Hybridization," in Brno in 1866. The monograph,
however, was all but ignored until after Mendel, dispirited by the lack of
recognition, died in 1884. It would take another 16 years for Mendel to get the
credit he was due, when three prominent and competing European botanists--Hugo
de Vries, Karl Correns, and Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg--rediscovered
Mendel's work in the course of their own research and Correns cited "Mendel's
laws" of heredity in 1900. Suddenly, the forgotten monk--thanks to the
citations and the ensuing efforts of British zoologist William Bateson to
promote Mendel's reputation--was hailed for his pioneering contributions to
When Czechoslovakia was carved out of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire
after World War I, scientists in the nascent country planned to honor Mendel by
establishing a genetics research center near his monastery. The Nazi occupation
and World War II dashed those plans, however. Brno scientists hid Mendel's
manuscripts and notes in a local institute's safe, says Anna Matalova, director
of a small Mendel museum, the Mendelianum, that now occupies several rooms of a
monastery building. Shortly before the Soviet occupation in 1945, a relative of
Mendel's spirited the original manuscript of "Experiments in Plant
Hybridization" into Germany for safekeeping. "It's a miracle that the artifacts
in the Mendel museum survived at all," says Pavel Braveny, a Brno physiology
professor who is among the local Mendel Center organizers, along with Palecek
and physicist Eduard Schmidt of Brno's Masaryk University.
The end of the war marked only the beginning of the troubles for Mendelian
geneticists in Czechoslovakia, who soon came under the thumb of Trofim Lysenko,
a Ukrainian agronomist who rose to power in the Soviet Union in the 1930s under
dictator Joseph Stalin. Lysenko's dogmatic view that nature could be sculpted
at will and the corollary--that the laws of genetics were a hoax--held sway for
more than 25 years. Soviet scientists who publicly avowed the existence of
genes often were banished to Siberian gulags.
Lysenkoism infected the Soviet satellites as well. In Brno, city officials
removed a stone Mendel monument--a statue of the monk clutching a pea
plant--from the city's Mendel Square and stashed it in the monastery, which
after World War II was converted into a hostel and government offices. During
those dark days, prominent Czech geneticists led by Jaroslav Krizenecky --who
had campaigned for a Mendel research center as early as the 1920s--spoke out on
behalf of Mendel. He and others paid a high price, with some getting thrown in
jail for anti-Lysenkoist views, according to Mendel biographer Vitezslav Orel,
a Brno geneticist. It was not until 1964, after the Soviet authorities finally
rejected Lysenkoism, that Brno scientists were able to organize a conference on
Mendelian genetics. The Mendelianum opened the following year to mark the 100th
anniversary of Mendel's lectures on heredity.
Now some scientists are rekindling the Mendel Center idea. "Mendel was an
extremely important figure, more important than Darwin in the development of
molecular biology," says molecular biologist Kim Nasmyth, who directs the
Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna and has taken the lead on the
Austrian side. He envisions an ultramodern conference center and a rebuilt
greenhouse at the rear of the monastery site. Such a center, he says, could "do
for Brno what the new Guggenheim Museum has done for Bilbao" in Spain--drawing
international attention and thousands of visitors.
That concept has won over a few luminaries. In a letter to Nasmyth in
February, Havel said such a center would "promote a better understanding of
Mendel and his extraordinary heritage." Watson--the U.S. Nobelist who
co-discovered the structure of DNA, launched the Human Genome Project, and now
directs the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York--visited the Mendelianum
in 1998 and says he's "very enthusiastic" about the proposal.
So far, however, no one has come through with any cash. Recently, the
European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) turned down Nasmyth's request
for seed money. "EMBO would be delighted for scientific meetings to be
organized in Brno," says director Frank Gannon, "but we don't plan to support
the provision of a meeting center," a concept that he says is not part of
EMBO's mission. One prominent European molecular biologist says that although
he would like to see greater homage paid to the monk, he thinks Brno, a 2-hour
drive from Vienna, is too remote for an international conference center. And
Brno may find it hard to buck the trend of holding specialized symposia in
resort areas such as Crete. Says one skeptic, "It's too bad that Mendel didn't
do his work in a warm place with nice beaches."
Nasmyth concedes that his "romantic notion" of an architecturally stunning
Mendel Center in Brno may take years to achieve. His group is searching for a
prominent scientist, or a businessperson with scientific interests, to help set
up a strategic plan. He concedes that they need to figure out how to attract
top scientists to conferences in Brno, how to use the center during the weeks
between conferences, and whether there's a need for another bioinformatics
institute in Europe.
Meanwhile, the center's boosters are hoping to fan enthusiasm at several
conferences this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery
of Mendel's work. The center idea came up in passing when many of the world's
top Mendel scholars and some leading geneticists gathered in Paris last month
for a 3-day colloquium on "The Rediscovery of Mendel's Laws." The concept also
is being aired during the yearlong "Mendel Lectures" series sponsored by the
Austrian Academy of Sciences as well as two meetings this spring and
summer--the Mendelianum's forum on the history of genetics and a Mendel
anniversary conference being organized by Palecek and others.
This year's festivities are honoring one of the greatest scientific insights
of all time. Those trying to establish a Mendel Center hope that, finally, the
attention will result in a more concrete tribute. "Something has always emerged
to block such Mendel projects," says Mendel biographer Orel, who was fired from
a Brno research institute in 1958 for daring to defend Mendelism. "If it isn't
a world war, it's a money problem or a conflicting ideology." Still, he says,
"I hope this latest plan succeeds."
Related articles in Science:
Was Lamarck Just a Little Bit Right?.
Science 2000 288: 38. (in News Focus) [Summary] [Full Text]
Volume 288, Number 5463 Issue of 7 Apr 2000, pp. 37 - 39
©2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Copyright © 2000 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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