Our History and the Bateson legacy

William BatesonThe University of Sheffield has had a distinguished reputation in the field of Genetics for over sixty years since John Thoday founded the Department of Genetics in 1954.

Thoday focused his studies on understanding the genetic basis of why individuals within a species are different from each other and also why this was critically important for evolution. In a seminal paper called “The Components of Fitness” (1953), he analysed the variability and asymmetry of bristle number on the two sides of different Drosophila fruit flies. Subsequently, he and his students went on to develop methods to locate the ‘polygenes’ that caused this variability. This approach of using a simple model system is still a key fundamental method used today by researchers (including those at The Bateson Centre) to understand the biological basis of human disease.

In 1959, Thoday left Sheffield to become head of the Genetics Department at Cambridge University. One of the many undergraduate students that he mentored during his tenure at that University was a young Philip Ingham.  During his own scientific research career, Ingham himself has used Drosophila and zebrafish as genetic tools to analyse how the basic body plan forms. He has also used these model systems to study the genetic signals that make cells differentiate and regenerate.

In 1993, Ingham  was made director of the newly formed Developmental Genetics Programme (DGP) at The University of Sheffield. He, in turn, recruited a cohort of developmental biologists who themselves used a diverse range of species to address a variety of basic and applied biological problems.

In 2004, the DGP evolved into the MRC Centre for Developmental and Biomedical Genetics (CDBG). This new Centre expanded on the work of the DGP and provided an encouraging environment for developmental biologists to work with clinician scientists. The primary aim of CDBG was to stimulate the translation of the findings discovered in non-mammalian model systems in to the development of new treatments that could be used in the clinic.

In 2009, Professor Marysia Placzek (herself recruited previously by Ingham) took over the directorship of CDBG. She has fostered further successful interactions between developmental biologists and clinicians at Sheffield University and it is on that exceptionally strong foundation that The Bateson Centre now sits. In 2015, the directorship was passed on to Professor Steve Renshaw.

William Bateson

William Bateson, the ‘Father of Genetics’ was born in Whitby, Yorkshire, in 1861.

His early interests in embryology and morphology led to a fascination with variation. In seminal work at the turn of the century, he performed breeding experiments, including experiments in insects and chickens that were designed to prove Mendel’s earlier theories of heredity. His rediscovery and interpretation of Mendel’s work, together with his passion for communicating his ideas to colleagues and students, led to the foundation of the new science of ‘genetics’.

Bateson’s ideas on heredity and variation exerted an enormous influence in the field. He shaped the views of many other key geneticists throughout the 20th Century. Not only was his advice sought by scientists, but his expertise was also solicited by a wide variety of commercial breeders and amateur collectors. Furthermore, archived letters reveal his interests in the contribution of genetics to a range of medical topics including eye diseases and colour blindness.

His legacy therefore extends to encompass the entire extent of the rich field of genetics from basic academic interest through to human and plant genetics. Bateson’s scientific contributions were widely recognized, through Fellowship of the Royal Society (1894), endowed Chair in Biology at the University of Cambridge (1908), Directorship of the John Innes Horticultural Institute (1910), and an Honorary Degree from the University of Sheffield (1910).