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Genetics 101
  DNA Mutations

By Amanda Ewart Toland, PhD

Reviewed by Karen Hales, PhD
Last updated October 3, 2011




One look around a room tells you that each person has slight differences in their physical make up — and therefore in their DNA. These subtle variations in DNA are called polymorphisms (literally "many forms"). Many of these gene polymorphisms account for slight differences between people such as hair and eye color. But some gene variations may result in disease or an increased risk for disease. Although all polymorphisms are the result of a mutation in the gene, geneticists only refer to a change as a mutation when it is not part of the normal variations between people.

 
 
 

How Do Mutations Occur?

Copying errors are introduced when DNA replicates itself.
Everyone acquires some changes to their DNA during the course of their lives. These changes occur in a number of ways. Sometimes there are simple copying errors that are introduced when DNA replicates itself. (Every time a cell divides, all of its DNA is duplicated so that the each of the two resulting cells have a full set of DNA.) Other changes are introduced as a result of DNA damage through environmental agents including sunlight, cigarette smoke, and radiation. Our cells have built in mechanisms that catch and repair most of the changes that occur during DNA replication or from environmental damage. As we age, however, our DNA repair does not work as effectively and we accumulate changes in our DNA.

Germline mutations are what cause diseases to run in families.
Some of these changes occur in cells of the body — such as in skin cells as a result of sun exposure — but are not passed on to children. But other errors can occur in the DNA of cells that produce the eggs and sperm. These are called germline mutations and can be passed from parent to child. If a child inherits a germline mutation from their parents, every cell in their body will have this error in their DNA. Germline mutations are what cause diseases to run in families, and are responsible for the kind of hereditary diseases covered by Genetic Health.

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What Kind of Mutations Are There?

A gene is essentially a sentence made up of the bases A, T, G, and C that describes how to make a protein. Any changes to those instructions can alter the gene's meaning and change the protein that is made, or how or when a cell makes that protein. There are many different ways to alter a gene, just as there are many different ways to introduce typos into a sentence. In the following examples of some types of mutations, we use the sentence "The fat cat ate the wee rat" as a sample gene:

Point Mutation
A point mutation is a simple change in one base of the gene sequence. This is equivalent to changing one letter in a sentence, such as this example, where we change the 'c' in cat to an 'h':

Original

The fat cat ate the wee rat.

Point Mutation The fat hat ate the wee rat.

Frame-shift mutation
Frame-shift mutations. In a frame shift mutation, one or more bases are inserted or deleted, the equivalent of adding or removing letters in a sentence. But because our cells read DNA in three letter "words", adding or removing one letter changes each subsequent word. This type of mutation can make the DNA meaningless and often results in a shortened protein. An example of a frame-shift mutation using our sample sentence is when the 't' from cat is removed, but we keep the original letter spacing:

Original

The fat cat ate the wee rat.

Frame Shift The fat caa tet hew eer at.

Deletion
Mutations that result in missing DNA are called deletions. These can be small, such as the removal of just one "word," or longer deletions that affect a large number of genes on the chromosome. Deletions can also cause frameshift mutations. In this example, the deletion eliminated the word cat.

Original

The fat cat ate the wee rat.

Deletion The fat ate the wee rat.

Insertion
Mutations that result in the addition of extra DNA are called insertions. Insertions can also cause frameshift mutations, and general result in a nonfunctional protein.

Original

The fat cat ate the wee rat.

Insertion The fat cat xlw ate the wee rat.

Inversion
In an inversion mutation, an entire section of DNA is reversed. A small inversion may involve only a few bases within a gene, while longer inversions involve large regions of a chromosome containing several genes.

Original

The fat cat ate the wee rat.

Insertion The fat tar eew eht eta tac.

DNA expression mutation
There are many types of mutations that change not the protein itself but where and how much of a protein is made. These types of changes in DNA can result in proteins being made at the wrong time or in the wrong cell type. Changes can also occur that result in too much or too little of the protein being made.

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