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Genetics 101

Genetics 101 — The Hereditary Material of Life

Mother and Child

Genetics is the study of heredity, the process in which parents pass certain genes onto their children. A gene is a short piece of DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid, the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. There are about 30,000 genes in each cell of the human body. Together, these genes make up the blueprint for the human body and how it works.

A person's appearance—height, hair color, skin color, and eye color—is determined by genes. Other characteristics affected by heredity include the likelihood of getting certain diseases, mental abilities, and natural talents.

An abnormal genetic trait passed down through families (inherited) may:

  • Have no effect on your health or well being—for example, it may just involve a white patch of hair or an extended earlobe
  • Be of minor consequence—for example, color blindness
  • Have a dramatic effect on your quality or length of life

For most genetic disorders, genetic counseling is advised. Many people may also want to seek prenatal diagnosis if they plan to have children. The terms anomaly, abnormality, disorder, defect, disease, and syndrome are not used consistently, and do not have precise definitions.

DNA strand

DNA is a double helix formed by base pairs attched to a sugar phosphate backbone.

What is DNA?

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person's body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).

The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.

DNA bases pair up with each other, A with T and C with G, to form units called base pairs. Each base is also attached to a sugar molecule and a phosphate molecule. Together, a base, sugar, and phosphate are called a nucleotide. Nucleotides are arranged in two long strands that form a spiral called a double helix. The structure of the double helix is somewhat like a ladder, with the base pairs forming the ladder's rungs and the sugar and phosphate molecules forming the vertical sidepieces of the ladder.

An important property of DNA is that it can replicate, or make copies of itself. Each strand of DNA in the double helix can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases. This is critical when cells divide because each new cell needs to have an exact copy of the DNA present in the old cell.

What is a gene?

A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. Genes, which are made up of DNA, act as instructions to make molecules called proteins. In humans, genes vary in size from a few hundred DNA bases to more than 2 million bases. The Human Genome Project has estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes.

Every person has two copies of each gene, one inherited from each parent. Most genes are the same in all people, but a small number of genes (less than 1 percent of the total) are slightly different between people. Alleles are forms of the same gene with small differences in their sequence of DNA bases. These small differences contribute to each person's unique physical features.

What is gene therapy?

Gene therapy is an experimental technique that uses genes to treat or prevent disease. In the future, this technique may allow doctors to treat a disorder by inserting a gene into a patient's cells instead of using drugs or surgery. Researchers are testing several approaches to gene therapy, including:

  • Replacing a mutated gene that causes disease with a healthy copy of the gene.
  • Inactivating, or "knocking out," a mutated gene that is functioning improperly.
  • Introducing a new gene into the body to help fight a disease.

Although gene therapy is a promising treatment option for a number of diseases (including inherited disorders, some types of cancer, and certain viral infections), the technique remains risky and is still under study to make sure that it will be safe and effective. Gene therapy is currently only being tested for the treatment of diseases that have no other cures.

Read More "Genetics 101" Articles

Genetics 101 — The Hereditary Material of Life / GeneEd — A Genetics Educational Resource / Using The Genetics Home Reference Website / Understanding the Human Genome Project — A Fact Sheet

Summer 2013 Issue: Volume 8 Number 2 Page 11-12