Mendel carried out his experiments long before chromosomes were visualized under a microscope. However, with the improvement of microscopic techniques during the late 1800s, cell biologists could stain and visualize subcellular structures with dyes and observe their actions during meiosis. They were able to observe chromosomes replicating, condensing from an amorphous nuclear mass into distinct X-shaped bodies and migrating to separate cellular poles. The speculation that chromosomes might be the key to understanding heredity led several scientists to examine Mendel’s publications and re-evaluate his model in terms of the behavior of chromosomes during mitosis and meiosis.
In 1902, Theodor Boveri (1862–1915) observed that in sea urchins, nuclear components (chromosomes) determined proper embryonic development. That same year, Walter Sutton (1877–1916) observed the separation of chromosomes into daughter cells during meiosis. Together, these observations led to the development of the Chromosomal Theory of Inheritance, which identified chromosomes as the genetic material responsible for Mendelian inheritance.
Despite compelling correlations between the behavior of chromosomes during meiosis and Mendel’s observations, the Chromosomal Theory of Inheritance was proposed long before there was any direct evidence that traits were carried on chromosomes. Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945) and his colleagues spent several years carrying out crosses with the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. They performed meticulous microscopic observations of fly chromosomes and correlated these observations with resulting fly characteristics. Their work provided the first experimental evidence to support the Chromosomal Theory of Inheritance in the early 1900s. In 1915, Morgan and his “Fly Room” colleagues published The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity, which identified chromosomes as the cellular structures responsible for heredity. For his many significant contributions to genetics, Morgan received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933.
In the late 1920s, Barbara McClintock (1902–1992) developed chromosomal staining techniques to visualize and differentiate between the different chromosomes of maize (corn). In the 1940s and 1950s, she identified a breakage event on chromosome 9, which she named the dissociation locus (Ds). Ds could change position within the chromosome. She also identified an activator locus (Ac). Ds chromosome breakage could be activated by an Ac element (transposase enzyme). At first, McClintock’s finding of these jumping genes, which we now call transposons, was not accepted by the scientific community. It wasn’t until the 1960s and later that transposons were discovered in bacteriophages, bacteria, and Drosophila. Today, we know that transposons are mobile segments of DNA that can move within the genome of an organism. They can regulate gene expression, protein expression, and virulence (ability to cause disease).
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology