12.2: Monohybrid Crosses
In the 1850s and 1860s, Gregor Mendel investigated inheritance by performing monohybrid crosses in pea plants. He crossed two plants that were true-breeding for different traits. Based on his observations, Mendel proposed that organisms inherit two copies of each trait, one from each parent, and that dominant traits can hide recessive traits. These results formed the basis of two fundamental principles in genetics: the Principle of Uniformity and the Law of Segregation.
Monohybrid Crosses Reveal Dominant and Recessive Traits
Over eight years spanning the 1850s and 1860s, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel carried out seminal breeding experiments with pea plants. These experiments demonstrated the fundamental principles of inheritance, earning him the moniker “the father of modern genetics.” Mendel’s experiments focused on seven pea plant characteristics, each manifesting as one of two traits that are determined by a single gene locus.
Mendel noticed that, when some of his pea plants reproduced by self-fertilization, their progeny always displayed the same trait. In other words, they were true-breeding. For example, some plants with yellow pods only produced offspring with yellow pods. When crossed with other plants that bred true for yellow pods, these plants also produced only progeny with yellow pods. Similarly, Mendel observed true-breeding pea plants that produced only offspring with green pods.
At the time, inherited traits were thought to be some mixture of parental features. Mendel instead observed discrete phenotypes, like green and yellow pods. He proposed that, rather than traits mixing in offspring, discrete factors (now known as genes) are inherited from parents and remain separate in the offspring. In cases where a trait skips a generation, Mendel proposed that the visible trait merely masks the presence of the other inherited trait. In other words, inheritance is particulate, and dominant traits hide recessive traits. To determine which trait was dominant, Mendel conducted monohybrid crosses. Monohybrid crosses combine two true-breeding organisms that differ by a single trait. All offspring of such crosses are monohybrids, or heterozygotes, and display the dominant trait.
For example, Mendel crossed pea plants that bred true for yellow pods with those that bred true for green pods to determine the dominant pod color. This parental generation (P0) produced offspring, the first filial generation (F1), that were all monohybrids with green pods. Repeatedly observing these findings established green pods as the dominant trait and demonstrated Mendel’s principle of uniformity: heterozygotes for a single gene trait display the same phenotype.
Parental Alleles Are Randomly Distributed to Gametes
Mendel then induced self-fertilization in the F1 plants, producing the F2 generation. F2 pea plants with green pods outnumbered those with yellow pods by a ratio of 3:1. Mendel repeatedly observed this 3:1 inheritance pattern for each of the seven pea plant characteristics.
Mendel’s law of segregation explains this recurring ratio. The law of segregation states that an organism distributes one of its two gene copies to each gamete (egg or sperm cell). Importantly, this distribution is random, such that a heterozygote (Gg) is equally likely to produce gametes with dominant (G) and recessive (g) alleles.
If a heterozygote self-fertilizes (Gg x Gg), the parental alleles can combine in four possible ways: paternal G with maternal G (GG), paternal G with maternal g (Gg), paternal g with maternal G (Gg), and paternal g with maternal g (gg). Three outcomes produce green pods (the GG and Gg genotypes) and one produces yellow pods (the gg genotype), a 3:1 ratio. Thus, if all outcomes are equally likely, self-fertilizing heterozygotes will produce three offspring with green pods for every one with yellow pods. This is remarkably close to the phenotypic ratio that Mendel observed, confirming his proposed law of segregation.
Dominant Traits Are Not Always Common
Unlike green pods, green peas are recessive, whereas yellow peas are dominant. Why, then, are the peas we regularly encounter green? In short, people prefer green peas over yellow ones. As Mendel’s experiments demonstrate, homozygotes produce offspring with the same trait, or phenotype, when self-fertilized or crossed with other homozygotes. If farmers continue to exclude yellow peas from their crop crosses, they will continue producing only green peas. This example illustrates another important point: dominant traits are not necessarily the most common traits. Harmful dominant traits, for example, may be selected against.