Human Genetics

Genetic Variation

Genetic variation, the genetic difference between individuals, is what contributes to a species’ adaptation to its environment. In humans, genetic variation begins with an egg, about 100 million sperm, and fertilization. Fertile women ovulate roughly once per month, releasing an egg from follicles in the ovary. The egg travels, via the fallopian tube, from the ovary to the uterus, where it may be fertilized by a sperm.

The egg and the sperm each contain 23 chromosomes. Chromosomes are long strings of genetic material known as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is a helix-shaped molecule made up of nucleotide base pairs. In each chromosome, sequences of DNA make up genes that control or partially control a number of visible characteristics, known as traits, such as eye color, hair color, and so on. A single gene may have multiple possible variations, or alleles. An allele is a specific version of a gene. So, a given gene may code for the trait of hair color, and the different alleles of that gene affect which hair color an individual has.

When a sperm and egg fuse, their 23 chromosomes pair up and create a zygote with 23 pairs of chromosomes. Therefore, each parent contributes half the genetic information carried by the offspring; the resulting physical characteristics of the offspring (called the phenotype) are determined by the interaction of genetic material supplied by the parents (called the genotype). A person’s genotype is the genetic makeup of that individual. Phenotype, on the other hand, refers to the individual’s inherited physical characteristics (Figure).

Image (a) shows the helical structure of DNA. Image (b) shows a person’s face.
(a) Genotype refers to the genetic makeup of an individual based on the genetic material (DNA) inherited from one’s parents. (b) Phenotype describes an individual’s observable characteristics, such as hair color, skin color, height, and build. (credit a: modification of work by Caroline Davis; credit b: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

Most traits are controlled by multiple genes, but some traits are controlled by one gene. A characteristic like cleft chin, for example, is influenced by a single gene from each parent. In this example, we will call the gene for cleft chin “B,” and the gene for smooth chin “b.” Cleft chin is a dominant trait, which means that having the dominant allele either from one parent (Bb) or both parents (BB) will always result in the phenotype associated with the dominant allele. When someone has two copies of the same allele, they are said to be homozygous for that allele. When someone has a combination of alleles for a given gene, they are said to be heterozygous. For example, smooth chin is a recessive trait, which means that an individual will only display the smooth chin phenotype if they are homozygous for that recessive allele (bb).

Imagine that a woman with a cleft chin mates with a man with a smooth chin. What type of chin will their child have? The answer to that depends on which alleles each parent carries. If the woman is homozygous for cleft chin (BB), her offspring will always have cleft chin. It gets a little more complicated, however, if the mother is heterozygous for this gene (Bb). Since the father has a smooth chin—therefore homozygous for the recessive allele (bb)—we can expect the offspring to have a 50% chance of having a cleft chin and a 50% chance of having a smooth chin (Figure).

Image (a) is a Punnett square showing the four possible combinations (Bb, bb, Bb, bb) resulting from the pairing of a bb father and a Bb mother. Image (b) is a close-up photograph showing a cleft chin.
(a) A Punnett square is a tool used to predict how genes will interact in the production of offspring. The capital B represents the dominant allele, and the lowercase b represents the recessive allele. In the example of the cleft chin, where B is cleft chin (dominant allele), wherever a pair contains the dominant allele, B, you can expect a cleft chin phenotype. You can expect a smooth chin phenotype only when there are two copies of the recessive allele, bb. (b) A cleft chin, shown here, is an inherited trait.

Sickle-cell anemia is just one of many genetic disorders caused by the pairing of two recessive genes. For example, phenylketonuria (PKU) is a condition in which individuals lack an enzyme that normally converts harmful amino acids into harmless byproducts. If someone with this condition goes untreated, he or she will experience significant deficits in cognitive function, seizures, and increased risk of various psychiatric disorders. Because PKU is a recessive trait, each parent must have at least one copy of the recessive allele in order to produce a child with the condition (Figure).

So far, we have discussed traits that involve just one gene, but few human characteristics are controlled by a single gene. Most traits are polygenic: controlled by more than one gene. Height is one example of a polygenic trait, as are skin color and weight.

A Punnett square shows the four possible combinations (NN, Np, Np, pp) resulting from the pairing of two Np parents.
In this Punnett square, N represents the normal allele, and p represents the recessive allele that is associated with PKU. If two individuals mate who are both heterozygous for the allele associated with PKU, their offspring have a 25% chance of expressing the PKU phenotype.

Where do harmful genes that contribute to diseases like PKU come from? Gene mutations provide one source of harmful genes. A mutation is a sudden, permanent change in a gene. While many mutations can be harmful or lethal, once in a while, a mutation benefits an individual by giving that person an advantage over those who do not have the mutation. Recall that the theory of evolution asserts that individuals best adapted to their particular environments are more likely to reproduce and pass on their genes to future generations. In order for this process to occur, there must be competition—more technically, there must be variability in genes (and resultant traits) that allow for variation in adaptability to the environment. If a population consisted of identical individuals, then any dramatic changes in the environment would affect everyone in the same way, and there would be no variation in selection. In contrast, diversity in genes and associated traits allows some individuals to perform slightly better than others when faced with environmental change. This creates a distinct advantage for individuals best suited for their environments in terms of successful reproduction and genetic transmission.