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Masaryk University scientists are analysing Mendel’s DNA

Applying state-of-the-art scientific technologies, experts led by Šárka Pospíšilová attempted to obtain as many facts as possible from his genetic code in order to update Mendel’s biography and contribute to the promotion of his life and work and the field of genetics as such.

Šárka Pospíšilová

The founder of genetics, a Renaissance man, scientist and clergyman Gregor Johann Mendel was not appropriately acknowledged and appreciated for his unique research during his lifetime. Even today Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein are much more famous, even though the significance of the three men’s achievements is comparable. Indeed, it was the lack of recognition of Mendel’s life and work was among the reasons why scientists from Masaryk University decided to launch a project whose aim was to find out something new about Mendel and attract the entire world to his work, genetics and science in general.

The project consisted in the anthropological and genetic study of the Augustinian tomb at Brno’s central cemetery which was believed to contain Mendel’s remains. In addition to the study of the tomb, scientists proceeded to search for Mendel’s personal effects at the abbey which, as they hoped, could bring to light new information about his life. Moreover, they could contain samples of his biological material, such as traces of DNA.

Led by Vice-Rector for Research and Doctoral Studies, geneticist and molecular haematologist Šárka Pospíšilová, the research team consisting of experts from Masaryk University and other institutions obtained the necessary permits to ensure the research is carried out in accordance with the applicable laws and ethical rules of scientific work.

The beginning of the research
Other teams of scientists from a variety of fields eventually joined the project, including those from the Faculty of Arts, Faculty of Science and Faculty of Medicine, as well as MU’s CEITEC. “We were able to use the broad experience of a variety of fields of science available at Masaryk University. The removal of the remains from the tomb and the subsequent identification involved the work of anthropologists, archaeology or genetics,” says Pospíšilová. “The team of experts involved in the project includes almost twenty experts from the university or its alumni. I would like to thank them for their enthusiasm and professional attitude. I also have to thank the Order of Saint Augustine for their kind cooperation from the very beginning, as well as other institutions involved in the research project, including the City of Brno,” she added.

First results of the research were published in late 2021. Based on swaps taken from items of daily use, such as glasses, knife, books, microscope and cane provided by the abbey they managed to secure some biological material. Using mitochondrial DNA sequencing they compared it with the DNA samples taken on the skeletal remains from the tomb, only to find match which confirmed that the deceased is indeed Gregor Johann Mendel.

The project also included the so-called super projection created using biometric data and the comparison of the shape of the face with the available paintings and photos of Mendel; or an analysis of his clothes including preservation. Scientists were able to gain new information on Mendel and other members of the order, including the resting place of Abbot Cyril František Napp. “We were surprised to find the remains of a fifth male. Based on the tombstone the tomb was supposed to contain the remains of four members of the Order of Saint Augustine. We inquired about the identity of the fifth man. Searching the archives of the central cemetery we found information according to which the fifth person was Abbot Cyril František Napp, one of the prominent members of the order, and Mendel’s predecessor and mentor,” Pospíšilová explains.

Mendel's genetic information
Based on the study of Mendel’s remains experts learned new information about his life and physical attributes, such as height, shoe size, brain size or the origins of his ancestors. “We believe that Mendel himself would have been excited about these results. Being a scientist, he would have loved to join the research project as a “key person” even many years after his death, especially with the new genetic technologies available. As the founder of genetics, he would have most certainly been proud of the progress genetics has made in 150 years,” Šárka Pospíšilová adds.

Genetics is undergoing rapid development; and it is a nice coincidence that scientists were able to obtain the genetic information of the founder of the field in relation to the 200th anniversary of his birth. The results of the research project will be dedicated to him, but also to the entire society for the benefit of the promotion of his life and work and the field of genetics as such.