The seven characteristics that Mendel evaluated in his pea plants were each expressed as one of two versions, or traits. The physical expression of characteristics is accomplished through the expression of genes carried on chromosomes. The genetic makeup of peas consists of two similar or homologous copies of each chromosome, one from each parent. Each pair of homologous chromosomes has the same linear order of genes. In other words, peas are diploid organisms in that they have two copies of each chromosome. The same is true for many other plants and for virtually all animals. Diploid organisms utilize meiosis to produce haploid gametes, which contain one copy of each homologous chromosome that unite at fertilization to create a diploid zygote.

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For cases in which a single gene controls a single characteristic, a diploid organism has two genetic copies that may or may not encode the same version of that characteristic. Gene variants that arise by mutation and exist at the same relative locations on homologous chromosomes are called alleles. Mendel examined the inheritance of genes with just two allele forms, but it is common to encounter more than two alleles for any given gene in a natural population.

Phenotypes and Genotypes

Two alleles for a given gene in a diploid organism are expressed and interact to produce physical characteristics. The observable traits expressed by an organism are referred to as its phenotype. An organism’s underlying genetic makeup, consisting of both physically visible and non-expressed alleles, is called its genotype. Mendel’s hybridization experiments demonstrate the difference between phenotype and genotype. When true-breeding plants in which one parent had yellow pods and one had green pods were cross-fertilized, all of the F1 hybrid offspring had yellow pods. That is, the hybrid offspring were phenotypically identical to the true-breeding parent with yellow pods. However, we know that the allele donated by the parent with green pods was not simply lost because it reappeared in some of the F2 offspring. Therefore, the F1 plants must have been genotypically different from the parent with yellow pods.

The P1 plants that Mendel used in his experiments were each homozygous for the trait he was studying. Diploid organisms that are homozygous at a given gene, or locus, have two identical alleles for that gene on their homologous chromosomes. Mendel’s parental pea plants always bred true because both of the gametes produced carried the same trait. When P1 plants with contrasting traits were cross-fertilized, all of the offspring were heterozygous for the contrasting trait, meaning that their genotype reflected that they had different alleles for the gene being examined.

Dominant and Recessive Alleles

Our discussion of homozygous and heterozygous organisms brings us to why the F1 heterozygous offspring were identical to one of the parents, rather than expressing both alleles. In all seven pea-plant characteristics, one of the two contrasting alleles was dominant, and the other was recessive. Mendel called the dominant allele the expressed unit factor; the recessive allele was referred to as the latent unit factor. We now know that these so-called unit factors are actually genes on homologous chromosome pairs. For a gene that is expressed in a dominant and recessive pattern, homozygous dominant and heterozygous organisms will look identical (that is, they will have different genotypes but the same phenotype). The recessive allele will only be observed in homozygous recessive individuals (Table 1).

Table 1. Human Inheritance in Dominant and Recessive PatternsDominant TraitsRecessive Traits
BrachydactylyCystic fibrosis
Huntington’s diseaseDuchenne muscular dystrophy
Marfan syndromeGalactosemia
Widow’s peakSickle-cell anemia
Wooly hairTay-Sachs disease

Several conventions exist for referring to genes and alleles. For the purposes of this chapter, we will abbreviate genes using the first letter of the gene’s corresponding dominant trait. For example, violet is the dominant trait for a pea plant’s flower color, so the flower-color gene would be abbreviated as V (note that it is customary to italicize gene designations). Furthermore, we will use uppercase and lowercase letters to represent dominant and recessive alleles, respectively. Therefore, we would refer to the genotype of a homozygous dominant pea plant with violet flowers as VV, a homozygous recessive pea plant with white flowers as vv, and a heterozygous pea plant with violet flowers as Vv.

Punnett Square Approach for a Monohybrid Cross

When fertilization occurs between two true-breeding parents that differ in only one characteristic, the process is called a monohybrid cross, and the resulting offspring are monohybrids. Mendel performed seven monohybrid crosses involving contrasting traits for each characteristic. On the basis of his results in F1 and F2 generations, Mendel postulated that each parent in the monohybrid cross contributed one of two paired unit factors to each offspring, and every possible combination of unit factors was equally likely.

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To demonstrate a monohybrid cross, consider the case of true-breeding pea plants with yellow versus green pea seeds. The dominant seed color is yellow; therefore, the parental genotypes were YY for the plants with yellow seeds and yy for the plants with green seeds, respectively. A Punnett square, devised by the British geneticist Reginald Punnett, can be drawn that applies the rules of probability to predict the possible outcomes of a genetic cross or mating and their expected frequencies. To prepare a Punnett square, all possible combinations of the parental alleles are listed along the top (for one parent) and side (for the other parent) of a grid, representing their meiotic segregation into haploid gametes. Then the combinations of egg and sperm are made in the boxes in the table to show which alleles are combining. Each box then represents the diploid genotype of a zygote, or fertilized egg, that could result from this mating. Because each possibility is equally likely, genotypic ratios can be determined from a Punnett square. If the pattern of inheritance (dominant or recessive) is known, the phenotypic ratios can be inferred as well. For a monohybrid cross of two true-breeding parents, each parent contributes one type of allele. In this case, only one genotype is possible. All offspring are Yy and have yellow seeds (Figure 1).