Chromosomes are microscopic units containing organized genetic information, located in the nuclei of diploid and haploid cells (e.g. human somatic and sex cells), and are also present in one-cell non-nucleated organisms (unicellular
microorganisms), like bacteria, which do not have an organized nucleus. The sum-total of genetic information contained in different chromosomes of a given individual or species are generically referred to as the genome.
In humans, chromosomes are structurally made of roughly equal amounts of proteins and DNA. Each chromosome contains a double-strand DNA molecule, arranged as a double helix, and tightly coiled and neatly packed by a family of proteins called histones. DNA strands are comprised of linked nucleotides. Each nucleotide has a sugar (deoxyribose), a nitrogenous base, plus one to three phosphate groups. Each nucleotide is linked to adjacent nucleotides in the same DNA strand by phosphodiester bonds. Phosphodiester is another sugar, made of sugar-phosphate. Nucleotides of one DNA strand link to their complementary nucleotide on the opposite DNA strand by hydrogen bonds, thus forming a pair of nucleotides, known as a base pair, or nucleotide base. Genes contain up to thousands of sequences of these base pairs. What distinguishes one gene from another is the sequence of nucleotides that code for the synthesis of a specific protein or portion of a protein. Some proteins are necessary for the structure of cells and tissues. Others, like enzymes, a class of active (catalyst) proteins, promote essential biochemical reactions, such as digestion, energy generation for cellular activity, or metabolism of toxic compounds. Some genes produce several slightly different versions of a given protein through a process of alternate transcription of bases pairs segments known as codons.
Amounts of autosomal chromosomes differ in cells of different species; but are usually the same in every cell of a given species. Sex determination cells (mature ovum and sperm) are an exception, where the number of chromosomes is halved. Chromosomes also differ in size. For instance, the smallest human chromosome, the sex chromosome Y, contains 50 million base pairs (bp), whereas the largest one, chromosome 1, contains 250 million base pairs. All three billion base pairs in the human genome are stored in 48 chromosomes. Human genetic information is therefore stored in 24 pairs of chromosomes (totaling 48), 24 inherited from the mother, and 24 from the father. Two of these chromosomes are sex chromosomes (chromosomes X and Y). The remaining 46 are autosomes, meaning that they are not sex chromosomes and are present in all somatic cells (i.e., any other body cell that is not a germinal cell for spermatozoa in males or an ovum in females). Sex chromosomes specify the offspring gender: normal females have two X chromosomes and normal males have one X and one Y chromosome.
Each set of 24 chromosomes constitutes one allele, containing gene copies inherited from one of the progenitors. The other allele is complementary or homologous, meaning that it contains copies of the same genes and on the same positions, but originated from the other parent. As an example, every normal child inherits one set of copies of gene BRCA1, located on chromosome 13, from the mother and another set of BRCA1 from the father, located on the other allelic chromosome 13. Allele is a Greek-derived word that means "one of a pair," or any one of a series of genes having the same locus (position) on homologous chromosomes.
The first chromosome observations were made under light microscopes, revealing rod-shaped structures in varied sizes and conformations, commonly J- or V-shaped in eukaryotic cells and ring-shaped in bacteria. Staining reveals a pattern of light and dark bands. Today those bands are known to correspond to regional variations in the amounts of the two nucleotide base pairs: adenine-thymine (A-T or T-A) in contrast with amounts of guanine-cytosine (G-C or C-G).
Genetic abnormalities and diseases occur when one of the following events happens: a) one chromosome copy is missing, b) extra copies of a chromosome are present, c) a chromosome breaks and its fragment is fused into another chromosome (insertion), d) a fragment is deleted, e) a gene is transferred from one chromosome to another (translocation), f) duplication of a chromosomal segment occurs, g) inversion of a chromosomal segment occurs. Down syndrome, for instance, is caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21.
In non-dividing cells, it is not possible to distinguish morphological details of individual chromosomes, because they remain elongated and entangled to each other. However, when a cell is dividing, i.e., undergoing mitosis, chromosomes become highly condensed and each individual chromosome occupies a well-defined spatial location.
Mitotic chromosomes present a constricted region, to which the spindle fibers attach during cellular division. Such constricted region, known as centromere or primary constriction, may be located in three different positions in chromosomes. Centromeric position allows the classification of chromosomes in three groups: a) acrocentric: centromere lies very near one end; b) metacentric: centromere at the middle, dividing the chromosome in two equal parts or arms; and c) submetacentric: centromere near middle, but dividing chromosome in two unequal arms.
When a chromosome loses its centromere, it is known as acentric. As the centromere is essential for both division and retention of chromosome copies in the new cells, acentric chromosomes will not pass to the daughter cells during the parental cell division. Therefore, daughter cells will miss one chromosome in their karyotype. A karyotype map shows mitotic chromosomes in the mitotic phase, known as metaphase. In metaphase, chromosomes align in pairs. In a normal human karyotype, there are 22 pairs of autosomal chromosomes and two sex chromosomes (X and Y). Each pair of autosomal chromosomes contains two complementary or homologous chromosomes, a maternal and a paternal copy.
Some chromosomes also present a secondary constriction that always appears at the same site. They are also useful, along with centromere position and chromosome size, for identifying and characterizing individual chromosomes, in a karyotype.
Karyotype analysis was the first genetic screening utilized by geneticists to assess inherited abnormalities, like additional copies of a chromosome or a missing copy, as well as DNA content and gender of the individual. With the development of new molecular screening techniques and the growing number of identified individual genes, detection of other more subtle chromosomal mutations is now possible (e.g., determinations of gene mutations, levels of gene expression, etc.). Such data allow scientists to better understand disease causation and to develop new therapies and medicines for those diseases.
Sandra Galeotti, MS