Genetics is the study of genes, heredity, and genetic variation in living organisms. It is generally considered a field of biology, but it intersects frequently with many of the life sciences and is strongly linked with the study of information systems.
The father of genetics is Gregor Mendel, a late 19th-century scientist and Augustinian friar. Mendel studied 'trait inheritance', patterns in the way traits were handed down from parents to offspring. He observed that organisms (pea plants) inherit traits by way of discrete "units of inheritance". This term, still used today, is a somewhat ambiguous definition of what is referred to as a gene.
Trait inheritance and molecular inheritance mechanisms of genes are still a primary principle of genetics in the 21st century, but modern genetics has expanded beyond inheritance to studying the function and behavior of genes. Gene structure and function, variation, and distribution are studied within the context of the cell, the organism (e.g. dominance) and within the context of a population. Genetics has given rise to a number of sub-fields including epigenetics and population genetics. Organisms studied within the broad field span the domain of life, including bacteria, plants, animals, and humans.
Genetic processes work in combination with an organism's environment and experiences to influence development and behavior, often referred to as nature versus nurture. The intra- or extra-cellular environment of a cell or organism may switch gene transcription on or off. A classic example is two seeds of genetically identical corn, one placed in a temperate climate and one in an arid climate. While the average height of the two corn stalks may be genetically determined to be equal, the one in the arid climate only grows to half the height of the one in the temperate climate, due to lack of water and nutrients in its environment.
The observation that living things inherit traits from their parents has been used since prehistoric times to improve crop plants and animals through selective breeding. The modern science of genetics, seeking to understand this process, began with the work of Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century.
Although the science of genetics began with the applied and theoretical work of Mendel, other theories of inheritance preceded his work. A popular theory during Mendel's time was the concept of blending inheritance: the idea that individuals inherit a smooth blend of traits from their parents. Mendel's work provided examples where traits were definitely not blended after hybridization, showing that traits are produced by combinations of distinct genes rather than a continuous blend. Blending of traits in the progeny is now explained by the action of multiple genes with quantitative effects. Another theory that had some support at that time was the inheritance of acquired characteristics: the belief that individuals inherit traits strengthened by their parents. This theory (commonly associated with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) is now known to be wrong—the experiences of individuals do not affect the genes they pass to their children, although evidence in the field of epigenetics has revived some aspects of Lamarck's theory. Other theories included the pangenesis of Charles Darwin (which had both acquired and inherited aspects) and Francis Galton's reformulation of pangenesis as both particulate and inherited.