In genetics, a mutation is a change of the nucleotide sequence of the genome of an organism, virus, or extrachromosomal genetic element. Mutations result from unrepaired damage to DNA or to RNA genomes (typically caused by radiation or chemical mutagens), from errors in the process of replication, or from the insertion or deletion of segments of DNA by mobile genetic elements. Mutations may or may not produce discernable changes in the observable characteristics (phenotype) of an organism. Mutations play a part in both normal and abnormal biological processes, including evolution, cancer, and the development of the immune system.
Mutation can result in several different types of change in sequences, Mutations in genes can either have no effect, alter the product of a gene, or prevent the gene from functioning properly or completely. Mutations can also occur in nongenic regions. One study on genetic variations between different species of Drosophilasuggests that if a mutation changes a protein produced by a gene, the result is likely to be harmful, with an estimated 70 percent of amino acid polymorphismshaving damaging effects, and the remainder being either neutral or weakly beneficial. Due to the damaging effects that mutations can have on genes, organisms have mechanisms such as DNA repair to prevent or correct (revert the mutated sequence back to its original state) mutations.
Mutations can involve large sections of DNA becoming duplicated, usually through genetic recombination. These duplications are a major source of raw material for evolving new genes, with tens to hundreds of genes duplicated in animal genomes every million years. Most genes belong to larger families of genes of shared ancestry. Novel genes are produced by several methods, commonly through the duplication and mutation of an ancestral gene, or by recombining parts of different genes to form new combinations with new functions.
Changes in chromosome number may involve even larger mutations, where segments of the DNA within chromosomes break and then rearrange. For example, in the Homininae, two chromosomes fused to produce human chromosome 2; this fusion did not occur in the lineage of the other apes, and they retain these separate chromosomes. In evolution, the most important role of such chromosomal rearrangements may be to accelerate the divergence of a population into new species by making populations less likely to interbreed, and thereby preserving genetic differences between these populations.
Nonlethal mutations accumulate within the gene pool and increase the amount of genetic variation. The abundance of some genetic changes within the gene pool can be reduced by natural selection, while other “more favorable” mutations may accumulate and result in adaptive changes.
For example, a butterfly may produce offspring with new mutations. The majority of these mutations will have no effect; but one might change the color of one of the butterfly’s offspring, making it harder (or easier) for predators to see. If this color change is advantageous, the chance of this butterfly surviving and producing its own offspring are a little better, and over time the number of butterflies with this mutation may form a larger percentage of the population.
Neutral mutations are defined as mutations whose effects do not influence the fitness of an individual. These can accumulate over time due to genetic drift. It is believed that the overwhelming majority of mutations have no significant effect on an organism’s fitness. Also, DNA repair mechanisms are able to mend most changes before they become permanent mutations, and many organisms have mechanisms for eliminating otherwise permanently mutated somatic cells.
Beneficial mutations can improve reproductive success.
Changes in DNA caused by mutation can cause errors in protein sequence, creating partially or completely non-functional proteins. Each cell, in order to function correctly, depends on thousands of proteins to function in the right places at the right times. When a mutation alters a protein that plays a critical role in the body, a medical condition can result. A condition caused by mutations in one or more genes is called a genetic disorder. Some mutations alter a gene’s DNA base sequence but do not change the function of the protein made by the gene. One study on the comparison of genes between different species of Drosophila suggests that if a mutation does change a protein, this will probably be harmful, with an estimated 70 percent of amino acid polymorphisms having damaging effects, and the remainder being either neutral or weakly beneficial. However, studies have shown that only 7% of mutations in yeast that are not in genes are harmful.
If a mutation is present in a germ cell, it can give rise to offspring that carries the mutation in all of its cells. This is the case in hereditary diseases. In particular, if there is a mutation in a DNA repair gene within a germ cell, humans carrying such germ-line mutations may have an increased risk of cancer. A list of 34 such germ-line mutations is given in the article DNA repair-deficiency disorder. On the other hand, a mutation may occur in a somatic cell of an organism. Such mutations will be present in all descendants of this cell within the same organism, and certain mutations can cause the cell to become malignant, and thus cause cancer.
A DNA damage can cause an error when the DNA is replicated, and this error of replication can cause a gene mutation that, in turn, could cause a genetic disorder. DNA damages are repaired by the DNA repair system of the cell. Each cell has a number of pathways through which enzymes recognize and repair damages in DNA. Because DNA can be damaged in many ways, the process of DNA repair is an important way in which the body protects itself from disease. Once a DNA damage has given rise to a mutation, the mutation cannot be repaired. DNA repair pathways can only recognize and act on “abnormal” structures in the DNA. Once a mutation occurs in a gene sequence it then has normal DNA structure and cannot be repaired.
Although mutations that change in protein sequences can be harmful to an organism; on occasions, the effect may be positive in a given environment. In this case, the mutation may enable the mutant organism to withstand particular environmental stresses better than wild-type organisms, or reproduce more quickly. In these cases a mutation will tend to become more common in a population through natural selection.
For example, a specific 32 base pair deletion in human CCR5 (CCR5-Δ32) confers HIV resistance to homozygotes and delays AIDS onset in heterozygotes. The CCR5 mutation is more common in those of European descent. One possible explanation of the etiology of the relatively high frequency of CCR5-Δ32 in the European population is that it conferred resistance to thebubonic plague in mid-14th century Europe. People with this mutation were more likely to survive infection; thus its frequency in the population increased. This theory could explain why this mutation is not found in southern Africa, which remained untouched by bubonic plague. A newer theory suggests that the selective pressure on the CCR5 Delta 32 mutation was caused bysmallpox instead of the bubonic plague.
Another example is Sickle cell disease, a blood disorder in which the body produces an abnormal type of the oxygen-carrying substance hemoglobin in the red blood cells. One-third of allindigenous inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa carry the gene, because in areas where malaria is common, there is a survival value in carrying only a single sickle-cell gene (sickle cell trait). Those with only one of the two alleles of the sickle-cell disease are more resistant to malaria, since the infestation of the malaria plasmodium is halted by the sickling of the cells which it infests.