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Celebrating Mendel: Bananas, Peas and Kākāpōs

22 Mar 2016 10:11 AM | David Turner (Administrator)

Untangling DNA from Bananas, unraveling the mystery of pea pigmentation, and rallying the public around the Kākāpō Genome project – Genetics Otago had some marvelous Mendel celebrations in early March.

Mendeling with Genomes

On March 8 geneticists around the world celebrated the first ever International Mendel Day, which celebrates the day that Mendel, after years of growing and counting and living amongst peas, presented his laws of inheritance to the Natural History Society of Brno (now in the Czech Republic).

151 years later, in the euphemistically ‘crisp’ twilight of early autumn Dunedin, members of the public, students and researchers gathered at the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum to hear a tale of discovery from one of Mendel’s ‘intellectual descendants,’ Professor Roger P. Hellens, Professor of Agricultural Biotechnology, of the Center for Tropical Crop and Biocommodities, Institute for Future Environments, Queensland University of Technology.

Roger entranced the audience with his quest to trace the gene behind red pigmentation in Mendel’s peas, beginning with a crumpled piece of school work containing his earliest treatise on genetics and his teacher’s own scrawling red pigment – “See me – to go over this work”.

Roger succeeded in walking his audience through genetic maps, diagrams and graphs without losing them in the maze of lines and letters, until we all arrived triumphantly at the genes that made some of Mendel’s peas a nice bluey-red.

We then all stepped back to look at the question on many a mind at the end of any genetics talk – ‘that’s nice…but what good is knowing all this?’ A startling figure showing the scale of the world’s hunger and nutrition problem - attributed as a cause of 9 million deaths a year – was enough to answer this. Nice richly coloured food delivers more essential vitamins like A and C, and so research that might help us produce more such fruit and vegetables is very important!

Going Bananas with Genetics

Two days earlier, in the Otago Museum’s wonderful Victorian animal attic, Genetics Otago and Otago Museum staff teamed up to introduce DNA to the children who could one day find more solutions to the world’s nutrition problems.

By the looks on the faces of most of the children and parents, the last thing they expected to find in a Banana was DNA. But after much mashing of bananas and swirling of the simple ingredients of water, salt, detergent and ethanol, there it was, the basic building block of life, DNA! Meanwhile a collection of apes, lions, platypuses and others looked on, silently sharing considerable percentages of DNA with the humans and bananas in the room. The lessons of the day? We are not so far removed from other forms of life, nor from the science that helps us unravel its mysteries!

125+ Kākāpō Genomes

Genetics' contributions to saving species from having their last remaining representatives consigned to the Animal Attic, were highlighted in a very special event at Wellington’s Zealandia eco-santuary on 14th March. Genetics Otago joined New Zealand Genome Ltd and the Department of Conservation Kākāpō Recovery Programme to celebrate the world-first project aiming to sequence all the genomes of a species – New Zealand's own kākāpō - in an event to raise awareness of this important project being carried out by Genetics Rescue.

The event, attended by the Hon Steven Joyce, raised awareness of how sequencing the genome of precious fauna such as the Kākāpō helps us to understand the diversity of the species, which is so important to successfully re-establishing a healthy population for all time – something to celebrate in another 150 years.

If Mendel had ever known that his research would lead to projects to help save all sorts of amazing wildlife from extinction, he would most likely have been very happy, even if his work was not greatly appreciated in his own lifetime.

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