6-2-8. Patterns of Inheritance
We have discussed the events that lead to the development of a newborn. But what makes each newborn unique? The answer lies, of course, in the DNA in the sperm and oocyte that combined to produce that first diploid cell, the human zygote.
From Genotype to Phenotype
Each human body cell has a full complement of DNA stored in 23 pairs of chromosomes. Figure 1 shows the pairs in a systematic arrangement called a
You inherit one chromosome in each pair—a full complement of 23—from each parent. This occurs when the sperm and oocyte combine at the moment of your conception. Homologous chromosomes—those that make up a complementary pair—have genes for the same characteristics in the same location on the chromosome. Because one copy of a gene, an
Chromosomal Complement of a Male
Although a person can have two identical alleles for a single gene (a
In the simplest scenario, a single pair of genes will determine a single heritable characteristic. However, it is quite common for multiple genes to interact to confer a feature. For instance, eight or more genes—each with their own alleles—determine eye color in humans. Moreover, although any one person can only have two alleles corresponding to a given gene, more than two alleles commonly exist in a population. This phenomenon is called multiple alleles. For example, there are three different alleles that encode ABO blood type; these are designated IA, IB, and i.
Over 100 years of theoretical and experimental genetics studies, and the more recent sequencing and annotation of the human genome, have helped scientists to develop a better understanding of how an individual’s genotype is expressed as their phenotype. This body of knowledge can help scientists and medical professionals to predict, or at least estimate, some of the features that an offspring will inherit by examining the genotypes or phenotypes of the parents. One important application of this knowledge is to identify an individual’s risk for certain heritable genetic disorders. However, most diseases have a multigenic pattern of inheritance and can also be affected by the environment, so examining the genotypes or phenotypes of a person’s parents will provide only limited information about the risk of inheriting a disease. Only for a handful of single-gene disorders can genetic testing allow clinicians to calculate the probability with which a child born to the two parents tested may inherit a specific disease.
Mendel’s Theory of Inheritance
Our contemporary understanding of genetics rests on the work of a nineteenth-century monk. Working in the mid-1800s, long before anyone knew about genes or chromosomes, Gregor Mendel discovered that garden peas transmit their physical characteristics to subsequent generations in a discrete and predictable fashion. When he mated, or crossed, two pure-breeding pea plants that differed by a certain characteristic, the first-generation offspring all looked like one of the parents. For instance, when he crossed tall and dwarf pure-breeding pea plants, all of the offspring were tall. Mendel called tallness
Mendel performed thousands of crosses in pea plants with differing traits for a variety of characteristics. And he repeatedly came up with the same results—among the traits he studied, one was always dominant, and the other was always recessive. (Remember, however, that this dominant–recessive relationship between alleles is not always the case; some alleles are codominant, and sometimes dominance is incomplete.)
Using his understanding of dominant and recessive traits, Mendel tested whether a recessive trait could be lost altogether in a pea lineage or whether it would resurface in a later generation. By crossing the second-generation offspring of purebred parents with each other, he showed that the latter was true: recessive traits reappeared in third-generation plants in a ratio of 3:1 (three offspring having the dominant trait and one having the recessive trait). Mendel then proposed that characteristics such as height were determined by heritable “factors” that were transmitted, one from each parent, and inherited in pairs by offspring.
In the language of genetics, Mendel’s theory applied to humans says that if an individual receives two dominant alleles, one from each parent, the individual’s phenotype will express the dominant trait. If an individual receives two recessive alleles, then the recessive trait will be expressed in the phenotype. Individuals who have two identical alleles for a given gene, whether dominant or recessive, are said to be homozygous for that gene (homo- = “same”). Conversely, an individual who has one dominant allele and one recessive allele is said to be heterozygous for that gene (hetero- = “different” or “other”). In this case, the dominant trait will be expressed, and the individual will be phenotypically identical to an individual who possesses two dominant alleles for the trait.
It is common practice in genetics to use capital and lowercase letters to represent dominant and recessive alleles. Using Mendel’s pea plants as an example, if a tall pea plant is homozygous, it will possess two tall alleles (TT). A dwarf pea plant must be homozygous because its dwarfism can only be expressed when two recessive alleles are present (tt). A heterozygous pea plant (Tt) would be tall and phenotypically indistinguishable from a tall homozygous pea plant because of the dominant tall allele. Mendel deduced that a 3:1 ratio of dominant to recessive would be produced by the random segregation of heritable factors (genes) when crossing two heterozygous pea plants. In other words, for any given gene, parents are equally likely to pass down either one of their alleles to their offspring in a haploid gamete, and the result will be expressed in a dominant–recessive pattern if both parents are heterozygous for the trait.
Because of the random segregation of gametes, the laws of chance and probability come into play when predicting the likelihood of a given phenotype. Consider a cross between an individual with two dominant alleles for a trait (AA) and an individual with two recessive alleles for the same trait (aa). All of the parental gametes from the dominant individual would be A, and all of the parental gametes from the recessive individual would be a (Figure 2). All of the offspring of that second generation, inheriting one allele from each parent, would have the genotype Aa, and the probability of expressing the phenotype of the dominant allele would be 4 out of 4, or 100 percent.
This seems simple enough, but the inheritance pattern gets interesting when the second-generation Aa individuals are crossed. In this generation, 50 percent of each parent’s gametes are A and the other 50 percent are a. By Mendel’s principle of random segregation, the possible combinations of gametes that the offspring can receive are AA, Aa, aA (which is the same as Aa), and aa. Because segregation and fertilization are random, each offspring has a 25 percent chance of receiving any of these combinations. Therefore, if an Aa × Aa cross were performed 1000 times, approximately 250 (25 percent) of the offspring would be AA; 500 (50 percent) would be Aa (that is, Aa plus aA); and 250 (25 percent) would be aa. The genotypic ratio for this inheritance pattern is 1:2:1. However, we have already established that AA and Aa (and aA) individuals all express the dominant trait (i.e., share the same phenotype), and can therefore be combined into one group. The result is Mendel’s third-generation phenotype ratio of 3:1.
Mendel’s observation of pea plants also included many crosses that involved multiple traits, which prompted him to formulate the principle of independent assortment. The law states that the members of one pair of genes (alleles) from a parent will sort independently from other pairs of genes during the formation of gametes. Applied to pea plants, that means that the alleles associated with the different traits of the plant, such as color, height, or seed type, will sort independently of one another. This holds true except when two alleles happen to be located close to one other on the same chromosome. Independent assortment provides for a great degree of diversity in offspring.
Mendelian genetics represent the fundamentals of inheritance, but there are two important qualifiers to consider when applying Mendel’s findings to inheritance studies in humans. First, as we’ve already noted, not all genes are inherited in a dominant–recessive pattern. Although all diploid individuals have two alleles for every gene, allele pairs may interact to create several types of inheritance patterns, including incomplete dominance and codominance.
Secondly, Mendel performed his studies using thousands of pea plants. He was able to identify a 3:1 phenotypic ratio in second-generation offspring because his large sample size overcame the influence of variability resulting from chance. In contrast, no human couple has ever had thousands of children. If we know that a man and woman are both heterozygous for a recessive genetic disorder, we would predict that one in every four of their children would be affected by the disease. In real life, however, the influence of chance could change that ratio significantly. For example, if a man and a woman are both heterozygous for cystic fibrosis, a recessive genetic disorder that is expressed only when the individual has two defective alleles, we would expect one in four of their children to have cystic fibrosis. However, it is entirely possible for them to have seven children, none of whom is affected, or for them to have two children, both of whom are affected. For each individual child, the presence or absence of a single gene disorder depends on which alleles that child inherits from his or her parents.
Autosomal Dominant Inheritance
In the case of cystic fibrosis, the disorder is recessive to the normal phenotype. However, a genetic abnormality may be dominant to the normal phenotype. When the dominant allele is located on one of the 22 pairs of autosomes (non-sex chromosomes), we refer to its inheritance pattern as
Autosomal Dominant Inheritance
Other genetic diseases that are inherited in this pattern are achondroplastic dwarfism, Marfan syndrome, and Huntington’s disease. Because autosomal dominant disorders are expressed by the presence of just one gene, an individual with the disorder will know that he or she has at least one faulty gene. The expression of the disease may manifest later in life, after the childbearing years, which is the case in Huntington’s disease (discussed in more detail later in this section).
Autosomal Recessive Inheritance
When a genetic disorder is inherited in an
An example of an autosomal recessive disorder is cystic fibrosis (CF), which we introduced earlier. CF is characterized by the chronic accumulation of a thick, tenacious mucus in the lungs and digestive tract. Decades ago, children with CF rarely lived to adulthood. With advances in medical technology, the average lifespan in developed countries has increased into middle adulthood. CF is a relatively common disorder that occurs in approximately 1 in 2000 Caucasians. A child born to two CF carriers would have a 25 percent chance of inheriting the disease. This is the same 3:1 dominant:recessive ratio that Mendel observed in his pea plants would apply here. The pattern is shown in Figure 4, using a diagram that tracks the likely incidence of an autosomal recessive disorder on the basis of parental genotypes.
On the other hand, a child born to a CF carrier and someone with two unaffected alleles would have a 0 percent probability of inheriting CF, but would have a 50 percent chance of being a carrier. Other examples of autosome recessive genetic illnesses include the blood disorder sickle-cell anemia, the fatal neurological disorder Tay–Sachs disease, and the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria.
Autosomal Recessive Inheritance
X-linked Dominant or Recessive Inheritance
When an abnormal allele for a gene that occurs on the X chromosome is dominant over the normal allele, the pattern is described as
X-Linked Patterns of Inheritance
With X-linked recessive diseases, males either have the disease or are genotypically normal—they cannot be carriers. Females, however, can be genotypically normal, a carrier who is phenotypically normal, or affected with the disease. A daughter can inherit the gene for an X-linked recessive illness when her mother is a carrier or affected, or her father is affected. The daughter will be affected by the disease only if she inherits an X-linked recessive gene from both parents. As you can imagine, X-linked recessive disorders affect many more males than females. For example, color blindness affects at least 1 in 20 males, but only about 1 in 400 females.
X-Linked Recessive Inheritance
Other Inheritance Patterns: Incomplete Dominance, Codominance, and Lethal Alleles
Not all genetic disorders are inherited in a dominant–recessive pattern. In
Table 1. Expression of Blood Types
Certain combinations of alleles can be lethal, meaning they prevent the individual from developing in utero, or cause a shortened life span. In
Sometimes a genetic disease is not caused by a mutation in a gene, but by the presence of an incorrect number of chromosomes. For example, Down syndrome is caused by having three copies of chromosome 21. This is known as trisomy 21. The most common cause of trisomy 21 is chromosomal nondisjunction during meiosis. The frequency of nondisjunction events appears to increase with age, so the frequency of bearing a child with Down syndrome increases in women over 36. The age of the father matters less because nondisjunction is much less likely to occur in a sperm than in an egg.
Whereas Down syndrome is caused by having three copies of a chromosome, Turner syndrome is caused by having just one copy of the X chromosome. This is known as monosomy. The affected child is always female. Women with Turner syndrome are sterile because their sexual organs do not mature.
Given the intricate orchestration of gene expression, cell migration, and cell differentiation during prenatal development, it is amazing that the vast majority of newborns are healthy and free of major birth defects. When a woman over 35 is pregnant or intends to become pregnant, or her partner is over 55, or if there is a family history of a genetic disorder, she and her partner may want to speak to a genetic counselor to discuss the likelihood that their child may be affected by a genetic or chromosomal disorder. A genetic counselor can interpret a couple’s family history and estimate the risks to their future offspring.
For many genetic diseases, a DNA test can determine whether a person is a carrier. For instance, carrier status for Fragile X, an X-linked disorder associated with mental retardation, or for cystic fibrosis can be determined with a simple blood draw to obtain DNA for testing. A genetic counselor can educate a couple about the implications of such a test and help them decide whether to undergo testing. For chromosomal disorders, the available testing options include a blood test, amniocentesis (in which amniotic fluid is tested), and chorionic villus sampling (in which tissue from the placenta is tested). Each of these has advantages and drawbacks. A genetic counselor can also help a couple cope with the news that either one or both partners is a carrier of a genetic illness, or that their unborn child has been diagnosed with a chromosomal disorder or other birth defect.
To become a genetic counselor, one needs to complete a 4-year undergraduate program and then obtain a Master of Science in Genetic Counseling from an accredited university. Board certification is attained after passing examinations by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. Genetic counselors are essential professionals in many branches of medicine, but there is a particular demand for preconception and prenatal genetic counselors.
Visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors website for more information about genetic counselors.
Visit the American Board of Genetic Counselors, Inc., website for more information about genetic counselors.
There are two aspects to a person’s genetic makeup. Their genotype refers to the genetic makeup of the chromosomes found in all their cells and the alleles that are passed down from their parents. Their phenotype is the expression of that genotype, based on the interaction of the paired alleles, as well as how environmental conditions affect that expression.
Working with pea plants, Mendel discovered that the factors that account for different traits in parents are discretely transmitted to offspring in pairs, one from each parent. He articulated the principles of random segregation and independent assortment to account for the inheritance patterns he observed. Mendel’s factors are genes, with differing variants being referred to as alleles and those alleles being dominant or recessive in expression. Each parent passes one allele for every gene on to offspring, and offspring are equally likely to inherit any combination of allele pairs. When Mendel crossed heterozygous individuals, he repeatedly found a 3:1 dominant–recessive ratio. He correctly postulated that the expression of the recessive trait was masked in heterozygotes but would resurface in their offspring in a predictable manner.
Human genetics focuses on identifying different alleles and understanding how they express themselves. Medical researchers are especially interested in the identification of inheritance patterns for genetic disorders, which provides the means to estimate the risk that a given couple’s offspring will inherit a genetic disease or disorder. Patterns of inheritance in humans include autosomal dominance and recessiveness, X-linked dominance and recessiveness, incomplete dominance, codominance, and lethality. A change in the nucleotide sequence of DNA, which may or may not manifest in a phenotype, is called a mutation.
Marfan syndrome is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern. Which of the following is true?
In addition to codominance, the ABO blood group antigens are also an example of ________.
Zoe has cystic fibrosis. Which of the following is the most likely explanation?
Critical Thinking Questions
Explain why it was essential that Mendel perform his crosses using a large sample size?
By using large sample sizes, Mendel minimized the effect of random variability resulting from chance. This allowed him to identify true ratios corresponding to dominant–recessive inheritance.
How can a female carrier of an X-linked recessive disorder have a daughter who is affected?
The only way an affected daughter could be born is if the female carrier mated with a male who was affected. In this case, 50 percent of the daughters would be affected. Alternatively, but exceedingly unlikely, the daughter could become affected by a spontaneous mutation.