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Genetics studies how living organisms inherit features from their ancestors; for example, children often look like their parents. Genetics seeks to identify which features are inherited, and explain how these features are passed from generation to generation.
In genetics, a feature of an organism is called a "trait". Some traits are features of an organism's physical appearance; for example, a person's eye-color, height or weight. There are many other trait types, and these range from aspects of behavior to resistance to disease. Traits are often inherited, for example tall and thin people tend to have tall and thin children. Other traits come from the interaction between inherited features and the environment. For example a child might inherit the tendency to be tall, but if little food is available and the child is poorly nourished, it will still be short. The way genetics and environment interact to produce a trait can be complicated: for example, the chances of somebody dying of cancer or heart disease seem to depend on both their family history and their lifestyle.
Genetic information is carried by a long molecule called DNA which is copied and inherited across generations. Traits are carried in DNA as instructions for constructing and operating an organism. These instructions are contained in segments of DNA called genes. DNA is made of a sequence of simple units, with the order of these units spelling out instructions in the genetic code. This is similar to the order of letters spelling out words. The organism "reads" the sequence of these units and decodes the instruction.
Not all the genes for a particular instruction are exactly the same. Different forms of one type of gene are called different alleles of that gene. As an example, one allele of a gene for hair color could carry the instruction to produce a lot of the pigment in black hair, while a different allele could give a garbled version of this instruction, so that no pigment is produced and the hair is white. Mutations are random events that change the sequence of a gene and therefore create a new allele. Mutations can produce a new trait, such as turning an allele for black hair into an allele for white hair. The appearance of new traits is important in evolution.
Inheritance in biology
Genes and inheritance
Genes are inherited as units, with parents dividing out their genes to their offspring. You can think of this process like mixing two hands of cards, shuffling them, and then dealing them out again. Humans have two copies of each of their genes (i.e, two alleles) and when people reproduce they make copies of their genes in eggs or sperm, but only put in one copy of each type of gene. An egg then joins with a sperm to give a child with a new set of genes. This child will have the same number of genes as its parents but for any gene one of their two copies will come from the father, and one from the mother.
The effects of this mixing depends on the types (the alleles) of the gene you are interested in. If the father has two alleles specifying green eyes, and the mother has two alleles specifying brown eyes, all their children will get two alleles giving different instructions, one for green eyes and one for brown. The eye color of these children depends on how these alleles work together. If one allele overrides the instructions from another, it is called the dominant allele, and the allele that is overridden is called the recessive allele. In the case of a daughter with both green and brown alleles, brown is dominant and she ends up with brown eyes.
However, the green eye color allele is still there in this brown-eyed girl, it just doesn't show. This is a difference between what you see on the surface (the set of observable traits of an organism, also called its phenotype) and which genes are in this organism (its genotype). In this example you can call the brown allele "B" and the green allele "g". (It is normal to write dominant alleles with capital letters and recessive ones with lower-case letters.) The brown-eyed daughter has the "brown eye phenotype" but her genotype is Bg, with one copy of the B allele, and one of the g allele.
Now imagine that this woman grows up and has children with a brown-eyed man who also has a Bg genotype. Her eggs will be a mixture of two types, one sort containing the B allele, and one sort the g allele. Similarly, her partner will produce a mix of two types of sperm containing one or the other of the two alleles. Now, when the alleles are mixed up in the offspring, these children have a chance of getting either brown or green eyes, since they could get a genotype of BB = brown eyes, Bg = brown eyes or gg = green eyes. In this generation, there is therefore a chance of the recessive allele showing itself in the phenotype of the children - some of them may have green eyes like their grandfather.
Many traits are inherited in a more complicated way than the example above. This can happen when there are several genes involved, each contributing a small part to the end result. Tall people tend to have tall children because their children get a package of many alleles that each contribute a bit to how much they grow. However, there are not clear groups of "short people" and "tall people", like there are groups of people with brown or green eyes. This is because of the large number of genes involved; this makes the trait very variable and people are many different heights. Inheritance can also be complicated when the trait depends on the interaction between genetics and the environment. This is quite common, for example, if a child does not eat enough nutritious food this will not change traits like eye color, but it could stunt their growth.
Some diseases are hereditary and run in families; others, such as infectious diseases, are caused by the environment. Other disorders are caused by a combination of hereditary and environmental factors.
Diseases that are caused by a single allele of a gene and are inherited in families are called genetic disorders. These include diseases like Huntington's disease, Cystic fibrosis or Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Cystic fibrosis, for example, is caused by mutations in a single gene called CFTR and is inherited as a recessive trait. Other diseases are influenced by genetics, but which alleles a person gets from their parents only changes their risk of getting a disease. Most of these diseases are inherited in a complex way, with either multiple genes involved, or both genes and the environment being important.
As an example, the risk of breast cancer is 50 times higher in the families most at risk, compared to the families least at risk. This variation is probably due to a large number of alleles. Each of them changes the risk a little bit. Several of the genes involved have been identified, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, but not all of them. However, although some of the risk is genetic, being overweight, drinking a lot of alcohol, or not exercising, all increase the risk of this cancer. A woman's risk of breast cancer is therefore the result of a large number of alleles and her environment, so it is very hard to predict.
How genes work
Genes make proteins
The function of genes is to provide the information needed to make molecules called proteins in cells. Cells are the smallest independent parts of organisms: the human body contains about 100 trillion cells, while very small organisms like bacteria are just a single cell. A cell is like a miniature and very complex factory that can make all the parts needed to produce a copy of itself, which happens when cells divide. There is a simple division of labor in cells - genes give instructions and proteins carry out these instructions, tasks like building a new copy of a cell, or repairing damage. Each type of protein is a specialist that only does one job, so if a cell needs to do something new, it must make a new protein to do this job. Similarly, if a cell needs to do something faster or slower than before, it makes more or less of the protein responsible. Genes tell cells what to do by telling them which proteins to make and in what amounts.
Proteins are made of a chain of 20 different types of amino acids. This chain folds up into a compact shape, rather like an untidy ball of rope. The shape of the protein is determined by the sequence of amino acids along its chain and it is this shape that, in turn, determines what the protein will do. For example, some proteins have depressions in their surface that perfectly match another molecule, allowing the protein to bind to this molecule very tightly. Other proteins are enzymes, which are like tiny machines that can alter other molecules.
The information in DNA is held in the sequence of the repeating units along the DNA chain. These units are four types of nucleotides (A,T,G and C) and the sequence of nucleotides stores information in an alphabet called the genetic code. When a gene is read by a cell the DNA sequence is copied into a very similar molecule called RNA (this process is called transcription). Transcription is controlled by other DNA sequences (such as promoters), which show a cell where genes are, and control how often they are copied. The RNA copy made from a gene is then fed through a structure called a ribosome, which translates the sequence of nucleotides in the RNA into the correct sequence of amino acids and joins these amino acids together to make a complete protein chain. The new protein then folds up into its active form. The process of moving information from the language of DNA into the language of amino acids is called translation.
If the sequence of the nucleotides in a gene changes, the sequence of the amino acids in the protein it produces may also change - if part of a gene is deleted, the protein produced will be shorter and may not work any more. This is the reason why different alleles of a gene can have different effects in an organism. As an example, hair color depends on how much of a dark substance called melanin is put into the hair as it grows. If a person has a normal set of the genes involved in making melanin, they make all the proteins needed and they grow dark hair. However, if the alleles for a particular protein have different sequences and produce proteins that do not do the job correctly, no melanin will be produced and the hair will be white. This condition is called albinism and the person with this condition is called an albino.
Genes are copied
Genes are copied each time a cell divides into two new cells. The process that copies DNA is called DNA replication.. It is through a similar process that a child inherits genes from its parents, when a copy from the mother is mixed with a copy from the father.
DNA can be copied very easily and accurately because each piece of DNA can direct the creation of a new copy of its information. This is because DNA is made of two strands that pair together like the two sides of a zipper. The nucleotides are in the center, like the teeth in the zipper, and pair up to hold the two strands together. Importantly, the four different sorts of nucleotides are different shapes, so in order for the strands to close up properly, an A nucleotide must go opposite a T nucleotide, and a G opposite a C. This exact pairing is called base pairing.
When DNA is copied, the two strands of the old DNA are pulled apart by enzymes which move along each of the two single strands pairing up new nucleotide units and then zipping the strands closed. This produces two new pieces of DNA, each containing one strand from the old DNA and one newly made strand. This process isn't perfect and sometimes the proteins will make mistakes and put the wrong nucleotide into the strand they are building. This causes a change in the sequence of that gene. These changes in DNA sequence are called mutations. Mutations produce new alleles of genes. Sometimes these changes stop the gene from working properly, like the melanin genes discussed above. In other cases these mutations can change what the gene does or even let it do its job a little better than before. These mutations and their effects on the traits of organisms are one of the causes of evolution.
Genes and evolution
A population of organisms evolves when an inherited trait becomes more common or less common over time. For instance, all the mice living on an island would be a single population of mice. If over a few generations, white mice went from being rare, to being a large part of this population, then the coat color of these mice would be evolving. In terms of genetics, this is called a change in allele frequency—such as an increase in the frequency of the allele for white fur.
Alleles become more or less common either just by chance (in a process called genetic drift), or through natural selection. In natural selection, if an allele makes it more likely that an organism will survive and reproduce, then over time this allele will become more common. But if an allele is harmful, natural selection will make it less common. For example, if the island was getting colder each year and was covered with snow for much of the time, then the allele for white fur would become useful for the mice, since it would make them harder to see against the snow. Fewer of the white mice would be eaten by predators, so over time white mice would out-compete mice with dark fur. White fur alleles would become more common, and dark fur alleles would become more rare.
Mutations create new alleles. These alleles have new DNA sequences and can produce proteins with new properties. So if an island was populated entirely by black mice, mutations could happen creating alleles for white fur. The combination of mutations creating new alleles at random, and natural selection picking out those which are useful, causes adaptation. This is when organisms change in ways that help them to survive and reproduce.
Since traits come from the genes in a cell, putting a new piece of DNA into a cell can produce a new trait. This is how genetic engineering works. For example, crop plants can be given a gene from an Arctic fish, so they produce an antifreeze protein in their leaves. This can help prevent frost damage. Other genes that can be put into crops include a natural insecticide from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. The insecticide kills insects that eat the plants, but is harmless to people. In these plants the new genes are put into the plant before it is grown, so the genes will be in every part of the plant, including its seeds. The plant's offspring will then inherit the new genes, something which has led to concern about the spread of new traits into wild plants.
The kind of technology used in genetic engineering is also being developed to treat people with genetic disorders in an experimental medical technique called gene therapy. However, here the new gene is put in after the person has grown up and become ill, so any new gene will not be inherited by their children. Gene therapy works by trying to replace the allele that causes the disease with an allele that will work properly.
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DNA and genes
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