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From Peas
to the Human Genome Project

Celebrating Gregor Mendel's 200th birth anniversary


This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of the father of genetics, Gregor Johann Mendel. In the gardens of a Brünn monastery, this solitary genius experimented with peas for many years and was the first to elucidate the laws of heredity. After thirty years of quiet unrecognition, his work was rediscovered by three biologists in 1900. Genetics and evolution were then combined in the 1930s, while a change in scientific instruments especially analytical instrument also ushered in, which promoted the further development of life sciences. The research of life sciences was no longer only to seek the truth – it began to construct its own truth. In 1953 Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA marked the birth of molecular biology, and recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s changed the field of life sciences in an all-round way. In the 1990s, the proposal and implementation of the human genome project opened a new chapter in gene research and gene technology.


The Science History Institute (SHI), located in Philadelphia, USA, is a comprehensive research institution integrating research, collection, and display. Its unique collection of classic instruments reflects the early development of chemistry and the life sciences in the last century. This exhibition, organized by Tsinghua University‘s department of the History of Science, Tsinghua Science Museum, as well as the Science History Institute, is divided into five parts, which are (1) Discovering Mendel (2) Fruit fly and Mouse (3) What is life (4) Double Helix (5) DNA Era and displays a number of precious scientific instruments provided by the Science History Institute, hoping that visitors will appreciate the supreme beauty of life among the discoveries of great scientists, classic experiments and exquisite instruments.

The Mendel statue in Mendel Museum,photographed by Professor Wu GuoSheng

Mendel's theory was introduced to China in the 1920s. His 1866 paper was translated and serialized in XueYI ZaZhi from 1920 to 1921.


This statue was introduced in Life of Mendel (translated to Chinese by Tan Zhenyao in 1936) by Hugo Iltis (1882-1952) as follows:


Along the lowest part of the front is a further inscription



Between these two inscriptions and upholding the upper one, in slight relief, are the figures of a youth and a maiden, nude and kneeling, with joined hands. This is a subtly allegorical allusion to the far-reading importance Mendel’s genetic laws are likely to have upon human life. The monument is not only a noble tribute to Mendel but an extraordinarily beautiful example of the sculptor’s art.


The unveiling of the memorial took place on October 2, 1910. All honour was then paid to the life and work of the retiring investigator who in the little garden near at hand had been so happy among his flowers and his bees. To him were now applicable the somewhat crude but thoughtful verses he had himself in boyhood penned in memory of Gutenberg:


May the might of destiny grant me

The supreme ecstasy of earthly joy,

The highest goal of earthly ecstasy,

That of seeing, when I rise from the tomb,

My art thriving peacefully

Among those who are to come after me.


That was in the year of 1910, and William Bateson, as spokesman of the British mendelians, delivered a speech extolling the power of science to bring the nations together, concluding with Schiller’s words: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.”


The Human Genome Project


The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an international scientific research project with the goal of determining the base pairs that make up human DNA – both to map the exact location of the genes on chromosomes and to sequence all of the genes of the human genome, and took place during 1990 to 2003.

HGP formally launched in 1990 in the U.S., and its formative days dated back to the mid-80s: Robert Sinsheimer(1920-), then chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, first proposed to sequence human genome in 1985, and the idea initially suffered from public distrust. But in 1986, Charles DeLisi of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) decided to begin funding research into genome mapping and sequencing. In 1988, a special committee of the U.S. National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommended the initiation of the Human Genome Project, calling for a 15-year project with funding of about $200 million a year. The genome project received a significant boost in late 1988 when Nobel Laureate James Watson stepped forward to lead a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) component of the effort. And DOE and NIH set the clock for the official initiation of HGP to October 1, 1990.

Though HGP began as a project specifically in the U.S., it gradually included more countries and stimulated international cooperation. In 1996, the UK, France, Germany, and Japan joined in HPG at the 1st “International Strategic Meeting on Human Genome Sequencing” (1st ISMHGS, also called“Bermuda Meeting”) in the February of 1996. The meeting also set the Bermuda Principles that mandates daily release of HGP-funded DNA sequences into the public domain. China, as the last participant and the only developing country, joined in at the 5th Strategic Meeting on August 31, 1999, and was committed to sequencing a region of approximately 30 centimorgan (one centimorgan corresponds to roughly 1 million base pairs in the human genome) on the tip of the short arm of chromosome 3. The part was then estimated to account for about 1% of the entire human genome, thus called the “1% Project,” or the “Chinese Chapter of the Human Genome Sequence,” or the “Beijing Region” of the human genome (shown in picture above). China accomplished sequencing the region within half a year in April 2000.

HGP was expected to take fifteen years but ended two years earlier on April 14, 2003, with full succuss. With retrospection, the project can be roughly periodized into three stages: 1. From 1990 to September 1994, HGP researchers sketched out the human genome map. 2. On June 26, 2000, the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announced that it completed a working draft of the sequence of the human genome. 3. The international consortium continued to complete the human genome sequence at the highest quality in a chromosome-by-chromosome manner, and in April 2003, the researchers claimed to have finished 99% of gene-containing part of human sequence with more than 99.99% accuracy. In addition, HGP researchers also finished genome sequences of E. coli, S. cerevisiae, C. elegans, D. melanogaster, plus whole-genome drafts of several others, including C. briggsae, D. pseudoobscura, mouse and rat.

HGP’s success marked a significant step of genetic technology and international cooperation. One benefit from HGP lies in improving drugs:  Before about the 1980s, drugs were found largely by serendipity – their molecular and protein targets were usually unknown. HGP reveals roughly 20,000 proteins as potential drug targets. Nowadays, the majority of successful drugs do not directly target individual disease genes; instead, they target proteins one or two interactions away. For example, large-scale screens of existing drugs that could be repurposed for use against COVID-19 found that only 1% of promising candidates targeted a viral protein — the majority were drugs that modulated human proteins.

Rather than draws a glorious conclusion, HGP cracks a new path and encourages genetic researches and technologies. For instance, while HGP only takes a few volunteers as samples, Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), an on-going project, intends to study individuals from all kinds of populations. Along with a better understanding of human genome, gene editing technology becomes exiting. The 2020 Noble Prize of Chemistry went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their pioneering work on gene editing tool CRISPR–Cas9 in 2012. But gene editing tool is a double-edged sword and can be controversial especially when it comes to human. For example, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, illegally carried out his own experiments on human embryos in 2018 and was put to jail in 2019.

When Gregor Mendel was hybridizing peas in the garden more than a hundred years before, he must not have thought of himself as the “father of genetics”. Now it is safe to claim that genetics has enabled us to examine God’s creatures in such a close way for the first time. However, technology is never limited to a technical dimension; gene editing technology seems to have developed too fast to be regulated by current ethics and laws. The HGP has inevitably directed us to gaze back at ourselves, and in Jorge Luis Borges’s words: “I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.”



Guosheng Wu

Professor & Chair, Department of the History of Science, Tsinghua University

Chair, Tsinghua University Science Museum

David Cole

President and CEO of the Science History Institute


Niankai Liu

Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Science,

Tsinghua University


Qinyan Wu

Ph.D. student, History and Sociology of Science Department, University of Pennsylvania


Zongbei Huang

Ph.D. student, Department of the History of Science,

Tsinghua University


Qianyu Yang

First-year undergraduate, Academy of Fine Arts,

Tsinghua University


Yuchen Shu

First-year undergraduate, Rixin College,

Tsinghua University


Wenxuan Wu

First-year undergraduate, Rixin College,

Tsinghua University


Jocelyn Jing Wang

International Affairs Coordinator,

Tsinghua University Science Museum


Ellen Liu 

Collections Registrar,

Tsinghua University Science Museum


Erin McLeary

Museum Director, Science History Institute


Molly Sampson

Collections Manager and Registrar, 

Science History Institute


Roger Turner
Curator of Instruments and Artifacts,

Science History Institute

Caitlin Martin

Director of Communications, 

Science History Institute


Dana Rodriguez

Senior Manager of Digital Communications,

Science History Institute


Sheng Zhong

Assistant Researcher, School of Life Sciences,

Peking University


Yi Yang

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