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2.1: Heredity

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    In this chapter, we will begin by examining some of the ways in which heredity helps to shape the way we are. We will look at what happens genetically during conception, and describe some known genetic and chromosomal disorders. Next, we will consider what happens during prenatal development, including the impact of teratogens. We will also discuss the impact that both the mother and father have on the developing fetus. Lastly, we will present the birth process and some of the complications that can occur during delivery. Before going into these topics, however, it is important to understand how genes and chromosomes affect development.

    Learning Objectives: Heredity
    • Define genes
    • Distinguish between mitosis and meiosis, genotype and phenotype, homozygous and heterozygous, and dominant and recessive
    • Describe some genetic disorders, due to a gene defect, and chromosomal disorders
    • Define polygenic and incomplete dominance
    • Describe the function of genetic counseling and why individuals may seek genetic counseling
    • Define behavioral genetics, describe genotype-environment correlations and genotype-environmental interactions, and define epigenetics


    As your recall from Chapter 1, nature refers to the contribution of genetics to one's development. The basic building block of the nature perspective is the gene. Genes are specific sequence of nucleotides and are recipes for making proteins. Proteins are responsible for influencing the structure and functions of cells. Genes are located on the chromosomes and there are an estimated 20,500 genes for humans, according to the Human Genome Project (NIH, 2015). See Note \(\PageIndex{1}\) at the end of this section for more details on the Human Genome Project.

    A diagram locates the nucleus within a cell, a chromosome within the nucleus, and the DNA within that chromosome.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). The location of DNA within chromosomes in a eukaryotic cell. Image source.

    Normal human cells contain 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs; one from each parent) in the nucleus of the cells. After conception, most cells of the body are created by a process called mitosis. Mitosis is defined as the cell's nucleus making an exact copy of all the chromosomes and splitting into two new cells. However, the cells used in sexual reproduction, called the gametes (sperm or ova), are formed in a process called meiosis. In meiosis the gamete's chromosomes duplicate and then divide twice, resulting in four cells each containing only half the genetic material of the original gamete. Thus, each sperm and egg possesses only 23 chromosomes and combine to produce the normal 46. See Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) for details on both mitosis and meiosis. Given the amount of genes present and the unpredictability of the meiosis process, the likelihood of having offspring that are genetically identical (and not twins) is one in trillions (Gould & Keeton, 1997).

    Diagrams of the steps for mitosis and meiosis, each illustrated with a starting cell with 2 chromosomes: one colored pink and the other blue. In mitosis, each chromosome is copied and the cell then divides, creating two cells identical to each other and the original cell. In meiosis, crossing-over first occurs between the chromosomes of the original cell, meaning some genes are exchanged between the chromosomes. Then the crossed-over chromosomes are each duplicated and the cell divides twice, creating 4 cells that each have one chromosome in some combination of pink and blue.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). Mitosis vs. meiosis.

    Of the 23 pairs of chromosomes created at conception, 22 pairs are similar in length. These are called autosomes. The remaining pair, the sex chromosomes, may differ in length. If a child receives the combination of XY the child will be genetically male. If the child receives the combination XX the child will be genetically female.

    Note \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In 1990 the Human Genome Project (HGP), an international scientific endeavor, began the task of sequencing the 3 billion base pairs that make up the human genome. In April of 2003, more than two years ahead of schedule, scientists gave us the genetic blueprint for building a human. Since then, using the information from the HGP, researchers have discovered the genes involved in over 1800 diseases. In 2005 the HGP amassed a large data base called HapMap that catalogs the genetic variations in 11 global populations. Data on genetic variation can improve our understanding of differential risk for disease and reactions to medical treatments, such as drugs. Pharmacogenomic researchers have already developed tests to determine whether a patient will respond favorably to certain drugs used in the treatment of breast cancer, lung cancer or HIV by using information from HapMap (NIH, 2015).

    Future directions for the HGP include identifying the genetic markers for all 50 major forms of cancer (The Cancer Genome Atlas), continued use of the HapMap for creating more effective drugs for the treatment of disease, and examining the legal, social and ethical implications of genetic knowledge (NIH, 2015).

    From the outset, the HGP made ethical issues one of their main concerns. Part of the HGP’s budget supports research and holds workshops that address these concerns. Who owns this information, and how the availability of genetic information may influence healthcare and its impact on individuals, their families, and the greater community are just some of the many questions being addressed (NIH, 2015).

    This page titled 2.1: Heredity is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.