A gene is the fundamental physical and functional unit of heredity. It is an individual element of an organism's genome and determines a trait or characteristic by regulating biochemical structure or metabolic process.
Genes are segments of nucleic acid, consisting of a specific sequence and number of the chemical units of nucleic acids, the nucleotides. In most organisms the nucleic acid is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), although in retroviruses the genetic material is composed of ribonucleic acid (RNA). Some genes in a cell are active more or less all the time, which means that they are continuously transcribed and provide a constant supply of their protein product. These are the "housekeeping" genes that are always needed for basic cellular reactions. Others may be rendered active or inactive depending on the needs and functions of the organism under particular conditions. The signal that masks or unmasks a gene can come from outside the cell, for example, from a steroid hormone or a nutrient, or it can come from within the cell itself as a result of the activity of other genes. In both cases, regulatory substances can bind to the specific DNA sequences of the target genes to control the synthesis of transcripts.
In a paper published in 1865, Gregor Mendel (1823–1884) advanced a theory of inheritance dependent on material elements that segregate independently from each other in sex cells. Before Mendel's findings, inherited traits were thought to be passed on through a blending of the mother and father's characteristics, much like a blending of two liquids. The term "gene" was coined later by the Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen (1857–1927), to replace the variety of terms used up until then to describe hereditary factors. His definition of the gene led him to distinguish between genotype (an organism's genetic makeup) and phenotype (an organism's appearance). Before the chemical and physical nature of genes were discovered they were defined on the basis of phenotypic expression and algebraic symbols were used to record their distribution and segregation. Because sexually reproducing, eukaryotic organisms possess two copies of an inherited factor (or gene), one acquired from each parent, the genotype of an individual for a particular trait is expressed by a pair of letters or symbols. Each of the alternative forms of a gene is also known as alleles. Dominant and recessive alleles are denoted by the use of higher and lower case letters. It can be predicted mathematically, for example, that a single allele pair will always segregate to give a genotype ratio 1AA:2Aa:1aa, and the phenotype ratio 2A:1aa (where A represents both AA and Aa since these cannot be distinguished phenotypically if dominance is complete).
The molecular structure and activity of genes can be modified by mutations and the smallest mutational unit is now known to be a single pair of nucleotides, also known as a muton. To indicate that a gene is functionally normal, it is assigned a plus (=) sign, whereas a damaged or mutated gene is indicated by a minus (+) sign. A wild type Escherichia coli able to synthesize its own arginine would thus be symbolized as arg=, and strains that have lost this ability by mutation of one of the genes for arginine utilization would be arg+. Such strains, known as arginine auxotrophs, would not be able to grow without a supplement of arginine. At this level of definition, the plus or minus actually refer to an operon rather than a single gene, and finer genetic analysis can be used to reveal the exact location of the mutated gene.
The use of mutations in studying genes is well-illustrated in a traditional genetic test called the "cis-trans test" which also gave the gene the alternative name, cistron. This is a complemetntation test that can be used to determine whether two different mutations (m1 and m2) occur
In 1910, the American geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945) began to uncover the relationship between genes and chromosomes. He discovered that genes were located on chromosomes and that they were arranged linearly and associated in linkage groups, with all the genes on one chromosome being linked. For example, the genes on the X and Y chromosomes are said to be sex-linked because the X and Y chromosomes determine the sex of the organisms, (in humans, X determines femaleness and Y determines maleness). Nonhomologous chromosomes possess different linkage groups, whereas homologous chromosomes have identical linkage groups in identical sequences. The distance between two genes of the same linkage group is the sum of the distances between all the intervening genes. A schematic representation of the linear arrangement of linked genes, with their relative distances of separation, is known as a genetic map. In the construction of such maps the frequency of recombination during crossing over is used as an index of the distance between two linked genes.
Advances in molecular genetics have allowed analysis of the structure and biochemistry of genes in greater detail. They are no longer the nebulous units described by Mendel purely in terms of their visible expression (phenotypic expression). It is now possible to understand their molecular structure and function in considerable detail. The biological role of genes is to carry, encode, or control information on the composition of proteins. The proteins, together with their timing of expression and amount of production, are possibly the most important determinants of the structure and physiology of organisms. Each structural gene is responsible for one specific protein or part of a protein and codes for a single polypeptide chain via messenger RNA (mRNA). Some genes code specifically for transfer RNA (tRNA) or ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and some are merely sequence that are recognized by regulatory proteins. The latter are termed regulator genes. In higher organisms, or eukaryotes, genes are organized in such a way that at one end there is a region to which various regulatory proteins can bind, for example, RNA polymerase during transcription, and at the opposite end there are sequences encoding the termination of transcription. In between lies the protein encoding sequence. In the genes of many eukaryotes, this sequence may be interrupted by intervening non-coding sequence segments called introns, which can range in number from one to many. Transcription of eukaryotic DNA produces pre-mRNA containing complementary sequences of both introns and the information carrying sections of the gene called exons. The pre-mRNA then undergoes post-transcriptional modification or processing in which the introns are excised and exons are spliced together, leaving the complete coding transcript of connected exons ready to code directly for the protein. When the central dogma of genetics was first established, a "one gene-one enzyme" hypothesis was proposed, but today it is more accurate to restate this as a one-to-one correspondence between a gene and the polypeptide for which it codes. This is because a number of proteins are now known to be constituted of multiple polypeptide subunits coded by different genes.
Judyth Sassoon, ARCS, PhD