11.7 Errors in Meiosis

Inherited disorders can arise when chromosomes behave abnormally during meiosis. Chromosome disorders can be divided into two categories: abnormalities in chromosome number and chromosome structural rearrangements. Because even small segments of chromosomes can span many genes, chromosomal disorders are characteristically dramatic and often fatal.

Disorders in Chromosome Number

The isolation and microscopic observation of chromosomes forms the basis of cytogenetics and is the primary method by which clinicians detect chromosomal abnormalities in humans. A karyotype is the number and appearance of chromosomes, including their length, banding pattern, and centromere position. To obtain a view of an individual’s karyotype, cytologists photograph the chromosomes and then cut and paste each chromosome into a chart, or karyogram (Figure 7).


Figure 7: This karyogram shows the chromosomes of a female human immune cell during mitosis. (Credit: Andreas Bolzer, et al)

By observing a karyogram, geneticists can actually visualize the chromosomal composition of an individual to confirm or predict genetic abnormalities in offspring even before birth.

Nondisjunctions, Duplications, and Deletions

Of all the chromosomal disorders, abnormalities in chromosome number are the most easily identifiable from a karyogram. Disorders of chromosome number include the duplication or loss of entire chromosomes, as well as changes in the number of complete sets of chromosomes. They are caused by nondisjunction, which occurs when pairs of homologous chromosomes or sister chromatids fail to separate during meiosis. The risk of nondisjunction increases with the age of the parents.

Nondisjunction can occur during either meiosis I or II, with different results (Figure 7.8). If homologous chromosomes fail to separate during meiosis I, the result is two gametes that lack that chromosome and two gametes with two copies of the chromosome. If sister chromatids fail to separate during meiosis II, the result is one gamete that lacks that chromosome, two normal gametes with one copy of the chromosome, and one gamete with two copies of the chromosome.


Figure 8: Following meiosis, each gamete has one copy of each chromosome. Nondisjunction occurs when homologous chromosomes (meiosis I) or sister chromatids (meiosis II) fail to separate during meiosis.

An individual with the appropriate number of chromosomes for their species is called euploid; in humans, euploidy corresponds to 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes. An individual with an error in chromosome number is described as aneuploid, a term that includes monosomy (loss of one chromosome) or trisomy (gain of an extraneous chromosome). Monosomic human zygotes missing any one copy of an autosome invariably fail to develop to birth because they have only one copy of essential genes. Most autosomal trisomies also fail to develop to birth; however, duplications of some of the smaller chromosomes (13, 15, 18, 21, or 22) can result in offspring that survive for several weeks to many years. Trisomic individuals suffer from a different type of genetic imbalance: an excess in gene dose. Cell functions are calibrated to the amount of gene product produced by two copies (doses) of each gene; adding a third copy (dose) disrupts this balance. The most common trisomy is that of chromosome 21, which leads to Down syndrome. Individuals with this inherited disorder have characteristic physical features and developmental delays in growth and cognition. The incidence of Down syndrome is correlated with maternal age, such that older women are more likely to give birth to children with Down syndrome (Figure 7.9).


Figure 9: The incidence of having a fetus with trisomy 21 increases dramatically with maternal age.

Humans display dramatic deleterious effects with autosomal trisomies and monosomies. Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive that human females and males can function normally, despite carrying different numbers of the X chromosome. In part, this occurs because of a process called X inactivation. Early in development, when female mammalian embryos consist of just a few thousand cells, one X chromosome in each cell inactivates by condensing into a structure called a Barr body. The genes on the inactive X chromosome are not expressed. The particular X chromosome (maternally or paternally derived) that is inactivated in each cell is random, but once the inactivation occurs, all cells descended from that cell will have the same inactive X chromosome. By this process, females compensate for their double genetic dose of X chromosome.

In so-called “tortoiseshell” cats, X inactivation is observed as coat-color variegation (Figure 10). Females heterozygous for an X-linked coat color gene will express one of two different coat colors over different regions of their body, corresponding to whichever X chromosome is inactivated in the embryonic cell progenitor of that region. When you see a tortoiseshell cat, you will know that it has to be a female.


Figure 10: Embryonic inactivation of one of two different X chromosomes encoding different coat colors gives rise to the tortoiseshell phenotype in cats. (credit: Michael Bodega)

In an individual carrying an abnormal number of X chromosomes, cellular mechanisms will inactivate all but one X in each of her cells. As a result, X-chromosomal abnormalities are typically associated with mild mental and physical defects, as well as sterility. If the X chromosome is absent altogether, the individual will not develop.

Several errors in sex chromosome number have been characterized. Individuals with three X chromosomes, called triplo-X, appear female but express developmental delays and reduced fertility. The XXY chromosome complement, corresponding to one type of Klinefelter syndrome, corresponds to male individuals with small testes, enlarged breasts, and reduced body hair. The extra X chromosome undergoes inactivation to compensate for the excess genetic dosage. Turner syndrome, characterized as an X0 chromosome complement (i.e., only a single sex chromosome), corresponds to a female individual with short stature, webbed skin in the neck region, hearing and cardiac impairments, and sterility.

An individual with more than the correct number of chromosome sets (two for diploid species) is called polyploid. For instance, fertilization of an abnormal diploid egg with a normal haploid sperm would yield a triploid zygote. Polyploid animals are extremely rare, with only a few examples among the flatworms, crustaceans, amphibians, fish, and lizards. Triploid animals are sterile because meiosis cannot proceed normally with an odd number of chromosome sets. In contrast, polyploidy is very common in the plant kingdom, and polyploid plants tend to be larger and more robust than euploids of their species.

Chromosome Structural Rearrangements

Cytologists have characterized numerous structural rearrangements in chromosomes, including partial duplications, deletions, inversions, and translocations. Duplications and deletions often produce offspring that survive but exhibit physical and mental abnormalities. Cri-du-chat (from the French for “cry of the cat”) is a syndrome associated with nervous system abnormalities and identifiable physical features that results from a deletion of most of the small arm of chromosome 5 (Figure 7.11). Infants with this genotype emit a characteristic high-pitched cry upon which the disorder’s name is based.


Figure 11: This individual with cri-du-chat syndrome is shown at various ages: (A) age two, (B) age four, (C) age nine, and (D) age 12. (credit: Paola Cerruti Mainardi)

Chromosome inversions and translocations can be identified by observing cells during meiosis because homologous chromosomes with a rearrangement in one of the pair must contort to maintain appropriate gene alignment and pair effectively during prophase I.

A chromosome inversion is the detachment, 180° rotation, and reinsertion of part of a chromosome (Figure 7.12). Unless they disrupt a gene sequence, inversions only change the orientation of genes and are likely to have more mild effects than aneuploid errors.

A translocation occurs when a segment of a chromosome dissociates and reattaches to a different, nonhomologous chromosome. Translocations can be benign or have devastating effects, depending on how the positions of genes are altered with respect to regulatory sequences. Notably, specific translocations have been associated with several cancers and with schizophrenia. Reciprocal translocations result from the exchange of chromosome segments between two nonhomologous chromosomes such that there is no gain or loss of genetic information (Figure 12).


Figure 12: An (a) inversion occurs when a chromosome segment breaks from the chromosome, reverses its orientation, and then reattaches in the original position. A (b) reciprocal translocation occurs between two nonhomologous chromosomes and does not cause any genetic information to be lost or duplicated. (credit: modification of work by National Human Genome Research Institute (USA)


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11.7 Errors in Meiosis by Lisa Bartee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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