Genetics is a fairly recent branch of science, but which has had, in its short period of existence, a significant impact on many aspects of our history.
At the base, genetics tries to answer one of the most important questions about our existence: who are we?
Through the study of inheritance first, and then of genetics, scientists have tried (and still try) to unravel the mystery of life, analyzing what makes us what we are.
Just as computer science has the bit as a fundamental unit and physics has the atom, genetics is based precisely on the study of genes .
The origins of genetics
It all began in the mid-nineteenth century, when Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk who lived in Austria, began experimenting with pea plants to try to establish how the characteristics of a particular plant were passed down from generation to generation.
Until then, the prevailing theory wanted that the physical characteristics of an organism were transmitted entirely by the father (seed) and that the mother organism was nothing more than a sort of incubator for the paternal seed and that it did not transmit any kind of genetic information. .
Mendel found that the information needed to create an organism is transmitted by gene pairs, one of which is inherited from the mother, one from the father. He also discovered the mechanisms through which the dominant and recessive characteristics manifest themselves from generation to generation. His work laid the foundation for what would have been the study of genetics in later centuries.
The next big step in the study of inheritance was made by Charles Darwin, who thanks to his observations formulated his famous theory of evolution. For the first time, man had to face the possibility that it was not a supreme being who created him in his image and likeness, but that it was a long process of transformation.
Phase 1: observation
The first phase of the history of genetics was therefore dedicated to observation, to the understanding of how the characteristics of an organism derive from the parents and how they are transmitted.
These discoveries soon emerged from scientific circles. The idea that some character traits could be predicted, such as intelligence or schizophrenia, was soon used as a pretext to identify, and often lock up and torture, individuals who had a history of mental illness in the family. The belief was actually that “non-normal” or socially acceptable behaviors were the product of completely hereditary factors and that they had nothing to do with the conditions in which an individual found himself living, such as poverty, abuse, etc. .
Precisely in this period, and on the basis of these ideas, we started talking about eugenics or the intervention of society to prevent the spread of these traits deemed unacceptable.
Genetics and the road to the Second World War
In Europe, these ideas were adopted and taken to the extreme by the Nazi movement, which with the idea of ”purifying” the Aryan race, gained power in Germany, giving way to the Holocaust, costing the lives of millions of Jews, exterminated in concentration camps. Only after the Second World War was this horror stopped.
With the defeat of the Reich, the atrocities committed in the extermination camps came to light. What had been done using scientific progress as a pretext was very serious and genetics suffered the heavy condemnation of world public opinion. It took a long time for confidence in this field to return.
However, although slowly, the study of our genetic material has continued and important discoveries have been made, such as the composition and function of DNA. The study of its double helix structure has led to a greater understanding of biological processes and the transmission of information necessary for their development.
Phase 2: from observation to manipulation
With sufficient knowledge of the functioning of DNA and genes, scientists quickly moved from the observation phase to a more advanced one: manipulation.
The first approach was to try to “check” the type of information transmitted to an organism, taking it from one and “grafting” it into another: the first experiments on cloning were born.
The argument was, and still is, extremely controversial. On the one hand, science is struggling to try and find cures for some of the worst diseases that afflict man; on the other, the idea of being able to clone a human being brings with it many doubts and implications.
Create a map of a human being
Technological progress and the discoveries of the last decades have made possible a knowledge of nature, evolution and man who until a couple of centuries ago was unthinkable. One of the most ambitious projects was launched in 1990: The Human Genome Project – the Human Genome Project. It was an international collaboration whose purpose was to “map” human DNA, recognizing and classifying the genes that make up our genome. The project ended in 2003 and led to several key breakthroughs in the sector.