What is a gene mutation and how do mutations occur?
A gene mutation is a permanent alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene, such that the sequence differs from what is found in most people. Mutations range in size; they can affect anywhere from a single DNA building block (base pair) to a large segment of a chromosome that includes multiple genes.
Gene mutations can be classified in two major ways:
- Hereditary mutations are inherited from a parent and are present throughout a person’s life in virtually every cell in the body. These mutations are also called germline mutations because they are present in the parent’s egg or sperm cells, which are also called germ cells. When an egg and a sperm cell unite, the resulting fertilized egg cell receives DNA from both parents. If this DNA has a mutation, the child that grows from the fertilized egg will have the mutation in each of his or her cells.
- Acquired (or somatic) mutations occur at some time during a person’s life and are present only in certain cells, not in every cell in the body. These changes can be caused by environmental factors such as ultraviolet radiation from the sun or can occur if a mistake is made as DNA copies itself during cell division. Acquired mutations in somatic cells (cells other than sperm and egg cells) cannot be passed on to the next generation.
Genetic changes that are described as de novo (new) mutations can be either hereditary or somatic. In some cases, the mutation occurs in a person’s egg or sperm cell but is not present in any of the person’s other cells. In other cases, the mutation occurs in the fertilized egg shortly after the egg and sperm cells unite. (It is often impossible to tell exactly when a de novo mutation happened.) As the fertilized egg divides, each resulting cell in the growing embryo will have the mutation. De novo mutations may explain genetic disorders in which an affected child has a mutation in every cell in the body, but the parents do not, and there is no family history of the disorder.
Somatic mutations that happen in a single cell early in embryonic development can lead to a situation called mosaicism. These genetic changes are not present in a parent’s egg or sperm cells, or in the fertilized egg, but happen a bit later when the embryo includes several cells.
As all the cells divide during growth and development, cells that arise from the cell with the altered gene will have the mutation, while other cells will not. Depending on the mutation and how many cells are affected, mosaicism may or may not cause health problems.
Most disease-causing gene mutations are uncommon in the general population. However, other genetic changes occur more frequently. Genetic alterations that occur in more than 1 percent of the population are called polymorphisms. They are common enough to be considered a normal variation in the DNA. Polymorphisms are responsible for many of the normal differences between people such as eye colour, hair colour, and blood type. Although many polymorphisms have no negative effects on a person’s health, some of these variations may influence the risk of developing certain disorders.
How can gene mutations affect health and development?
To function correctly, each cell depends on thousands of proteins to do their jobs in the right places at the right times. Sometimes, gene mutations prevent one or more of these proteins from working properly. By changing a gene’s instructions for making a protein, a mutation can cause the protein to malfunction or to be missing entirely. When a mutation alters a protein that plays a critical role in the body, it can disrupt normal development or cause a medical condition. A condition caused by mutations in one or more genes is called a genetic disorder.
In some cases, gene mutations are so severe that they prevent an embryo from surviving until birth. These changes occur in genes that are essential for development, and often disrupt the development of an embryo in its earliest stages. Because these mutations have very serious effects, they are incompatible with life.
It is important to note that genes themselves do not cause disease—genetic disorders are caused by mutations that make a gene function improperly. For example, when people say that someone has “the cystic fibrosis gene,” they are usually referring to a mutated version of the CFTR gene, which causes the disease. All people, including those without cystic fibrosis, have a version of the CFTR gene.
Do all gene mutations affect health and development?
No; only a small percentage of mutations cause genetic disorders—most have no impact on health or development. For example, some mutations alter a gene’s DNA sequence but do not change the function of the protein made by the gene.
Often, gene mutations that could cause a genetic disorder are repaired by certain enzymes before the gene is expressed and an altered protein is produced. Each cell has several pathways through which enzymes recognize and repair mistakes in DNA. Because DNA can be damaged or mutated in many ways, DNA repair is an important process by which the body protects itself from disease.
A very small percentage of all mutations have a positive effect. These mutations lead to new versions of proteins that help an individual better adapt to changes in his or her environment. For example, a beneficial mutation could result in a protein that protects an individual and future generations from a new strain of bacteria.
Because a person’s genetic code can have many mutations with no effect on health, diagnosing genetic conditions can be difficult. Sometimes, genes thought to be related to a particular genetic condition have mutations, but whether these changes are involved in development of the condition has not been determined; these genetic changes are known as variants of unknown significance (VOUS). Sometimes, no mutations are found in suspected disease-related genes, but mutations are found in other genes whose relationship to a particular genetic condition is unknown. It is difficult to know whether these variants are involved in the disease.
Can a change in the number of genes affect health and development?
People have two copies of most genes, one copy inherited from each parent. In some cases, however, the number of copies varies—meaning that a person can be born with one, three, or more copies of particular genes. Less commonly, one or more genes may be entirely missing. This type of genetic difference is known as copy number variation (CNV).
Copy number variation results from insertions, deletions, and duplications of large segments of DNA. These segments are big enough to include whole genes. Variation in gene copy number can influence the activity of genes and ultimately affect many body functions.
Researchers were surprised to learn that copy number variation accounts for a significant amount of genetic difference between people. More than 10 percent of human DNA appears to contain these differences in gene copy number. While much of this variation does not affect health or development, some differences likely influence a person’s risk of disease and response to certain drugs. Future research will focus on the consequences of copy number variation in different parts of the genome and study the contribution of these variations to many types of disease.
Can genes be turned on and off in cells?
Each cell expresses, or turns on, only a fraction of its genes. The rest of the genes are repressed or turned off. The process of turning genes on and off is known as gene regulation. Gene regulation is an important part of normal development. Genes are turned on and off in different patterns during development to make a brain cell look and act different from a liver cell or a muscle cell, for example. Gene regulation also allows cells to react quickly to changes in their environments. Although we know that the regulation of genes is critical for life, this complex process is not yet fully understood.
Gene regulation can occur at any point during gene expression, but most commonly occurs at the level of transcription (when the information in a gene’s DNA is transferred to mRNA). Signals from the environment or from other cells activate proteins called transcription factors. These proteins bind to regulatory regions of a gene and increase or decrease the level of transcription. By controlling the level of transcription, this process can determine the amount of protein product that is made by a gene at any given time.
What Is Gene Expression? – Regulation, Analysis & Definition
How do genes control the growth and division of cells?
A variety of genes are involved in the control of cell growth and division. The cell cycle is the cell’s way of replicating itself in an organized, step-by-step fashion. Tight regulation of this process ensures that a dividing cell’s DNA is copied properly, any errors in the DNA are repaired, and each daughter cell receives a full set of chromosomes. The cycle has checkpoints (also called restriction points), which allow certain genes to check for mistakes and halt the cycle for repairs if something goes wrong.
If a cell has an error in its DNA that cannot be repaired, it may undergo programmed cell death (apoptosis. Apoptosis is a common process throughout life that helps the body get rid of cells it doesn’t need. Cells that undergo apoptosis break apart and are recycled by a type of white blood cell called a macrophage. Apoptosis protects the body by removing genetically damaged cells that could lead to cancer, and it plays an important role in the development of the embryo and the maintenance of adult tissues.
Cancer results from a disruption of the normal regulation of the cell cycle. When the cycle proceeds without control, cells can divide without order and accumulate genetic defects that can lead to a cancerous tumor (illustration- below).
Cancer is therefore a “genetic disease “ In my next blog I want to discuss genetics of cancer, what tests you can use, what you will learn, and how you will be able to make best use out of the information you will get. It will be an important part in cancer prevention. If applied properly, we will be able to reduce the number of fatal cancer cases.