Working with garden pea plants, Mendel found that crosses between parents that differed for one trait produced F1 offspring that all expressed one parent’s traits. The traits that were visible in the F1 generation are referred to as dominant, and traits that disappear in the F1 generation are described as recessive. When the F1 plants in Mendel’s experiment were self-crossed, the F2 offspring exhibited the dominant trait or the recessive trait in a 3:1 ratio, confirming that the recessive trait had been transmitted faithfully from the original P parent. Reciprocal crosses generated identical F1 and F2 offspring ratios. By examining sample sizes, Mendel showed that traits were inherited as independent events.
When true-breeding, or homozygous, individuals that differ for a certain trait are crossed, all of the offspring will be heterozygous for that trait. If the traits are inherited as dominant and recessive, the F1 offspring will all exhibit the same phenotype as the parent homozygous for the dominant trait. If these heterozygous offspring are self-crossed, the resulting F2 offspring will be equally likely to inherit gametes carrying the dominant or recessive trait, giving rise to offspring of which one quarter are homozygous dominant, half are heterozygous, and one quarter are homozygous recessive. Because homozygous dominant and heterozygous individuals are phenotypically identical, the observed traits in the F2 offspring will exhibit a ratio of three dominant to one recessive.
Mendel postulated that genes (characteristics) are inherited as pairs of alleles (traits) that behave in a dominant and recessive pattern. Alleles segregate into gametes such that each gamete is equally likely to receive either one of the two alleles present in a diploid individual. In addition, genes are assorted into gametes independently of one another. That is, in general, alleles are not more likely to segregate into a gamete with a particular allele of another gene.
Alleles do not always behave in dominant and recessive patterns. Incomplete dominance describes situations in which the heterozygote exhibits a phenotype that is intermediate between the homozygous phenotypes. Codominance describes the simultaneous expression of both of the alleles in the heterozygote. Although diploid organisms can only have two alleles for any given gene, it is common for more than two alleles for a gene to exist in a population. In humans, as in many animals and some plants, females have two X chromosomes and males have one X and one Y chromosome. Genes that are present on the X but not the Y chromosome are said to be X-linked, such that males only inherit one allele for the gene, and females inherit two.
According to Mendel’s law of independent assortment, genes sort independently of each other into gametes during meiosis. This occurs because chromosomes, on which the genes reside, assort independently during meiosis and crossovers cause most genes on the same chromosomes to also behave independently. When genes are located in close proximity on the same chromosome, their alleles tend to be inherited together. This results in offspring ratios that violate Mendel's law of independent assortment. However, recombination serves to exchange genetic material on homologous chromosomes such that maternal and paternal alleles may be recombined on the same chromosome. This is why alleles on a given chromosome are not always inherited together. Recombination is a random event occurring anywhere on a chromosome. Therefore, genes that are far apart on the same chromosome are likely to still assort independently because of recombination events that occurred in the intervening chromosomal space.
Whether or not they are sorting independently, genes may interact at the level of gene products, such that the expression of an allele for one gene masks or modifies the expression of an allele for a different gene. This is called epistasis.