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Scientists dig up biologist Gregor Mendel's body and sequence his DNA

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're almost done with 2022, a year that marked the bicentennial of Gregor Mendel's birth. He's known as the father of genetics because his experiments with pea plants established the basic rules of heredity. And to commemorate the 200 years since Mendel's birth, some researchers decided to dig him up and analyze his genes. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Gregor Mendel was a scientist and also an Augustinian friar at a monastery in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. A couple years ago, local researchers were talking about how to mark this major anniversary of his birth. Sarka Pospisilova is a geneticist. She says the ideas included a festival, a scientific conference, a statue. And then a colleague asked her - hey, how about doing a genetic analysis of Mendel himself?

SARKA POSPISILOVA: So that was the beginning.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She's the vice rector for research at Masaryk University in Brno. Even though the idea seemed a little crazy, she went around to different specialists there.

POSPISILOVA: So I asked the anthropologist, who had experiences with analyses of remains of various historical persons. So I asked how to do that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The project actually seemed doable if religious leaders at the monastery would give the OK.

POSPISILOVA: They had to ask the Augustinians in Prague and the bishop, and also, finally, they should get approval of the Augustinians in Rome.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: With permission granted, the research team could get to work. Molecular biologist Filip Pardy says it felt momentous.

FILIP PARDY: Because Gregor Mendel is a person that is taught at the first course of genetics, you know, at the university - so everybody feels that he is very important, especially here in Brno.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says Mendel used math to study patterns of inheritance when looking at things like flower color and plant height.

PARDY: He analyzed a set of about 25,000 plants to actually get his numbers right and to create the formulas. So in this regard, he was also kind of a visionary and one step ahead.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When Mendel's tomb was excavated, it contained five coffins, stacked one on top of the other. It seemed that Mendel's was at the bottom. It was lined with some newspapers that were dated shortly before he died, but the researchers weren't totally sure. Pardy says they wanted better evidence.

PARDY: So we actually came up with this idea of going through his personal possessions because we knew we needed some reference material to actually confirm his identity.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Local museum curators let them swab Mendel's microscope, his glasses, his papers. Inside one of his favorite books on astronomy, the researchers found a hair. By looking at DNA from all that and comparing it to DNA in the skeleton, they felt certain that they'd found Mendel's body. They sequenced all of his genes and found genetic variants linked to diabetes, heart problems, kidney disease. Geneticist Daniel Fairbanks, who's written a book on Mendel, says one of his variants was particularly intriguing.

DANIEL FAIRBANKS: He suffered throughout his life from some sort of either psychological or neurological disorder that caused him to have very severe nervous breakdowns.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And his DNA shows a variant in a gene linked to epilepsy and other neurological issues.

FAIRBANKS: That may well have been an inherited condition. And that was a fascinating discovery, I think, that these scientists made.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So what would Mendel have thought of having his DNA removed and sequenced? Would he have preferred to rest in peace? Fairbanks says he's pondered this.

FAIRBANKS: I tend to think, from what I know about him, that he may very well have been happy with this. But of course, we can't directly ask him.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He points out that, just before dying, Mendel did ask that an autopsy be done on his body. In death, as in life, he wanted everything examined scientifically. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.