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Bateson, William

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(1861–1926) British geneticist: a founder of genetics.

Bateson was described as ‘a vague and aimless boy’ at school and he surprised his teachers by getting first-class honours in science at Cambridge in 1883. He then spent 2 years in the USA. He returned to Cambridge, taught there and in 1910 became director of the new John Innes Institution. From the time of his US visit he was interested in variation and evolution, and by 1894 he had decided that species do not develop continuously by gradual change but evolve discontinuously in a series of ‘jumps’. To support his view against opposition, he began breeding experiments, unaware of work of 1866. When the latter was rediscovered in 1900, Bateson saw that it gave support for his ‘discontinuity’ theory and he translated and publicized Mendel’s work and extended it to animals by his own studies on the inheritance of comb shape in fowls. He showed that work on human inborn errors of metabolism had a Mendelian interpretation. He also found that some genes can interact; so that certain traits are not inherited independently, which is in conflict with Mendel’s laws. This interaction results from ‘linkage’, that is genes being close together on the same chromosome, as and others showed. Bateson coined the word ‘genetics’ but he never accepted the ideas of natural selection or chromosomes.

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