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Genetic Variation

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Genetic Variation

Genetic variation describes the differences in our DNA and how the resulting offspring will be genetically different from the parents. Mutation events, meiosis and random fertilisation, cause genetic variation. You might have read our article on gene mutations and learned how changes in the DNA base sequence causes genetic variation. Here, you will learn about the importance of meiosis and random fertilisation in generating genetic variation.

Genetic variation in meiosis

Genetic variation is introduced during meiosis - a form of cellular division. This process produces genetically different sex cells, called gametes, for sexual reproduction. Meiosis is extremely important in evolution. It is a key driver of natural selection (the process by which organisms with traits that favour their survival live on to reproduce is and only made possible with genetic variation). Meiosis also ensures that the resulting zygote (a fertilised egg) will contain the correct amount of chromosomes upon fertilisation.

Phases of meiosis

A detailed explanation of different phases in meiosis is outlined in another article on meiosis, but we will revisit the steps here briefly. Recall that meiosis involves two cellular divisions, meiosis I and meiosis II. Each division has four common stages

  • prophase
  • metaphase
  • anaphase
  • telophase

Meiosis I begins with a single diploid cell containing 46 chromosomes due to DNA replication which occurred during interphase. Prophase I involves homologous chromosomes pairing up. The homologous (similar position) chromosomes undergo crossing over, which is a recombination event involving the exchange of DNA. The bivalents line up along the metaphase plate, and spindle fibres drive this action during metaphase I. Independent assortment occurs during metaphase I, and we will explore this process in the following section. Anaphase I describes the separation of the homologous chromosomes, while telophase involves the assembly of the chromosomes at each cell pole. At the end of meiosis I, cytokinesis is initiated to produce two genetically different haploid cells.

Crossing over: a recombination event in which sections of DNA are swapped between homologous chromosomes.

Independent assortment describes the random orientation of the homologous chromosomes on the metaphase plate and the different combinations of alleles inherited.

You might see homologous chromosomes be referred to as bivalents because the chromosomes are pairs.

Meiosis II is the second cellular division. During prophase II, the cell prepares for division by condensing the chromosomes and breaking down the nucleus. Metaphase II involves spindle fibres assembling individual chromosomes along the metaphase plate and independent assortment. Anaphase II results in the separation of sister chromatids, and telophase II describes the decondensing of the chromosomes at opposite cell poles. After cytokinesis is complete, four genetically unique haploid gametes are left.

One chromosome after DNA replication is composed of two identical sister chromatids. This means that there are a total of 4 chromatids in a pair of homologous chromosomes.

Differences between mitosis and meiosis

Mitosis is another form of cellular division but, unlike meiosis, involves only one cellular division. The purpose of mitosis is to produce genetically identical cells to replace damaged cells and asexual reproduction. Conversely, meiosis aims to produce genetically unique cells for sexual reproduction. We will explore the differences between these different cell division types.

Table 1. Differences between mitosis and meiosis.

Cellular divisions
One cellular division
Two cellular divisions
Daughter cells
Diploid
Haploid
Number of daughter cells
Two
Four
Genetic variation
No genetic variation - all daughter cells are genetically identical
Genetic variation - all daughtercells are genetically unique
Chromosome alignment
Individual chromosomes assemble at the metaphase plate
Homologous chromosomes assemble at the metaphase plate (meiosis II)

Causes of genetic variation

Genetic variation during meiosis is caused by crossing over and independent segregation. After meiosis is complete, random fertilisation also contributes to genetic variation. We'll take a detailed look at each of these events here.

Crossing over

Crossing over is a process that occurs only in meiosis I during prophase I, and this involves the exchange of sections of DNA between homologous chromosomes. A section of a chromatid wraps around the corresponding chromatid of the other chromosome, which effectively allows these sections of DNA to 'break' off and swap between the pair to produce recombinant chromatids. Alleles are swapped, or new alleles are created as new gene combinations are made!

A chromatid is one molecule of DNA. Before DNA replication, each chromosome is composed of one chromatid. After DNA replication, each chromosome is composed of two chromatids.

Chiasmata is the term given to the point at which the chromatid section breaks off and exchanges.

Crossing over occurs between two non-sister chromatids from a pair of homologous chromosomes!

Independent segregation

Independent segregation occurs in meiosis I and meiosis II (metaphase I and metaphase II). This describes how the chromosomes can assemble along the metaphase plate, which gives rise to immense genetic variation. This process is entirely random, and to illustrate how much genetic variation is introduced, we use some maths.

A pair of homologous chromosomes is composed of two individual chromosomes. Therefore, the number of possible alignments along the metaphase plate is 2n, where n is the number of pairs of homologous chromosomes in a cell. This gives us 223, which is over 8 million possible combinations in a human cell.

In meiosis I, individual segregation occurs between homologous chromosomes. In meiosis II, individual segregation happens between individual chromosomes.

Random fertilisation

Random fertilisation similarly gives rise to genetic variation as sexual reproduction involves the random fusion of two gametes, all of which are genetically different due to crossing over and individual segregation. This leaves organisms that reproduce sexually with tremendously vast combinations of genetic uniqueness. Again, we use maths to calculate the number of different chromosome combinations that can arise from random fertilisation.

After crossing over and independent segregation, we calculated over 8 million possible chromosome combinations. As sexual reproduction involves the fusion of two gametes, this gives us (223) 2 combinations, which is 70 trillion!

Chromosomal mutations

Chromosomal mutations describe changes to the chromosome structure or chromosome number. One of the most common chromosome mutations occurring during meiosis is non-disjunction. Non-disjunction is the failure of chromosomes to split equally during the anaphase stage of nuclear division. This is a spontaneous event, and it means the resulting gametes will not have the expected number of chromosomes.

The two main outcomes of this are:

  • polyploidy
  • aneuploidy

Polyploidy is caused by the failure of homologous chromosomes to separate during meiosis. This gives rise to gametes containing more than two sets of chromosomes, including triploid cells (three sets of chromosomes) or even tetraploid cells (four sets of chromosomes). Polyploidy is a common phenomenon in plants, and this leads to an increase in gene expression and morphological changes, such as cell enlargement. In humans, polyploidy is extremely rare and lethal, but polyploid cells can occur in some cases.

The majority of babies with polyploidy, unfortunately, end as miscarriages or shortly after birth. In some cases, liver and bone marrow cells can undergo abnormal cell division and become polyploid.

Aneuploidy is caused by the failure of sister chromatids to separate during meiosis, and this gives rise to gametes containing one extra or one less chromosome. This often leads to genetic disorders, as is the case for Down syndrome. Down syndrome occurs when a gamete with one extra chromosome at position 21 fuses with a normal gamete, giving rise to a zygote containing three copies of chromosome 21.

Genetic Variation - Key takeaways

  • Meiosis is essential for sexual reproduction as it generates gametes. This form of cellular division is also a key driver in natural selection.

  • Genetic variation is introduced in meiosis during crossing over, independent segregation, random fertilisation and mutations. These events create immense genetic variation.

  • Chromosomal mutations can give rise to polyploid and aneuploid cells. Polyploidy results in cells containing more than two sets of chromosomes. Aneuploidy results in a cell containing one extra or one less chromosome.

Frequently Asked Questions about Genetic Variation

Meiosis is a type of cellular division that involves the production of gametes. The gametes are genetically different due to genetic variation and this is important for sexual reproduction and natural selection.

Meiosis I involves crossing over and independent segregation. Crossing over occurs in prophase I and this results in the exchange of DNA between homologous chromosomes. This creates new combinations of alleles. Independent segregation describes the different ways in which chromosomes can assemble along the metaphase plate. This occurs in metaphase I. Meiosis II involves independent segregation but not crossing over. 

Genetic variation is introduced in meiosis I during crossing over and independent segregation. Genetic variation is introduced in meiosis II during independent segregation. 

The organisation of homologous chromosomes is called independent segregation. During metaphase I, this increases genetic variation as the homologous chromosomes align randomly on the metaphase plate. This means the daughter cells will have different chromosome combinations.  

Genetic variation is important for natural selection because specific features can grant organisms advantages. These organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce. 

Genetic variation is caused by mutations, meiosis and random fertilisation. The meiotic events that introduce genetic variation include crossing over and independent segregation. 

Mutations is the name given to the changes in the genetic strucutre. This often leads to genetic variation in an organism. 

Final Genetic Variation Quiz

Question

When does crossing over occur during meiosis?

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Answer

Crossing over occurs in prophase I of meiosis I. 

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Question

Describe crossing over. 

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Answer

Crossing over is the process by which sections of DNA are exchanged between homologous chromosomes (between non-sister chromatids). This creates recombinant chromatids which are genetically unique.

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Question

What is independent segregation and when does it occur during meiosis?


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Answer

Independent segregation describes the different ways in which chromosomes can assemble along the metaphase plate. This process occurs in metaphase I and metaphase II. 

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Question

What are the four steps that meiosis I and meiosis II have in common?


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Answer

Prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase. 

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Question

What is the end product in meiosis I?


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Answer

Meiosis I produces two genetically different haploid cells. 

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Question

What is the end product in meiosis II?


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Answer

Meiosis II produces four genetically different haploid gametes. 

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Question

What is the name given to the point at which sections of DNA are exchanged during crossing over?


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Answer

Chiasmata. 

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Question

Compare the genetic variation between cells of mitosis and meiosis. 


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Answer

In mitosis, there is no genetic variation. In meiosis, genetic variation is introduced during crossing over, independent segregation, random fertilization and mutations. 

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Question

Compare the daughter cells produced from mitosis and meiosis. 


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Answer

Mitosis produces two genetically identical diploid daughter cells. Meiosis produces four genetically different haploid daughter cells. 

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Question

How many cell divisions occur in mitosis and meiosis?


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Answer

Mitosis involves one cell division whereas meiosis involves two cell divisions (meiosis I and meiosis II). 

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Question

Describe non-disjunction.


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Answer

Non-disjunction is the failure of chromosomes to separate correctly during anaphase. 

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Question

Identify the two outcomes of non-disjunction.


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Answer

Polyploidy or aneuploidy. 

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Question

Describe polyploidy. 


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Answer

Polyploidy is caused by the failure of homologous chromosomes to separate. This results in cells containing more than two sets of chromosomes. 

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Question

Describe aneuploidy. 


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Answer

Aneuploidy is caused by the failure of sister chromatids to separate during meiosis. This results in cells containing one extra or one fewer chromosomes. 

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Question

Identify a genetic disorder caused by a non-disjunction event. 


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Answer

Down syndrome is an aneuploid disorder caused by chromosomal non-disjunction. Individuals with Down syndrome contain three copies of the chromosome at position 21. 

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