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In Context #14 (Fall, 2005, pp. 14-17); copyright 2005 by The Nature Institute

The Gene: A Needed Revolution
Craig Holdrege

The concept of the gene was first conceived by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s. He never used the term "gene," but spoke of "factor," "Anlage," or "element" to point to the underlying cause of differences in inherited characteristics of different offspring. He writes, for example:

The distinguishing characteristics of two plants can only be due to the differences in the make-up and grouping of those elements that stand in vital interaction within the germ cells. Gregor Mendel (1866)

In 1909, Danish biologist Wilhelm Johannsen coined the term "gene" to refer to discrete determiners of inherited characteristics:

The word gene is completely free of any hypothesis; it expresses only the evident fact that, in any case, many characteristics of the organism are specified in the germ cells by means of special conditions, foundations, and determiners which are present in unique, separate, and thereby independent ways - in short, precisely what we wish to call genes. Wilhelm Johannsen (1909)

Most people today are familiar with the term "gene" and have learned in school and through media that genes determine the characteristics of organisms. There are genes for hair and eye color, genes that direct the formation of our body's substances, and many genes that are somehow defective and cause disabilities and illnesses