42 Overview of Meiosis

Sexual reproduction requires fertilization, a union of two cells from two individual organisms. If those two cells each contain one set of chromosomes, then the resulting cell contains two sets of chromosomes. The number of sets of chromosomes in a cell is called its ploidy level (Figure 1). Haploid cells contain one set of chromosomes. Cells containing two sets of chromosomes are called diploid. If the reproductive cycle is to continue, the diploid cell must somehow reduce its number of chromosome sets before fertilization can occur again, or there will be a continual doubling in the number of chromosome sets in every generation. So, in addition to fertilization, sexual reproduction includes a nuclear division, known as meiosis, that reduces the number of chromosome sets.

Figure 1 Number of chromosomes in a haploid and diploid cell. Note that triploid and tetraploid are not normal numbers of chromosomes in humans.

Most animals and plants are diploid, containing two sets of chromosomes; in each somatic cell (the non-reproductive cells of a multicellular organism), the nucleus contains two copies of each chromosome that are referred to as homologous chromosomes. Somatic cells are sometimes referred to as “body” cells. Homologous chromosomes are matched pairs containing genes for the same traits in identical locations along their length (Figure 2). Diploid organisms inherit one copy of each homologous chromosome from each parent; all together, they are considered a full set of chromosomes. In animals, haploid cells containing a single copy of each homologous chromosome are found only within gametes. Gametes are the sex cells (eggs and sperm) of an organism. One haploid gamete (containing one copy of each chromosome) fuses with another haploid gamete (also containing one copy of each chromosome) to produce a diploid cell (which has two copies of each chromosome).

Figure 2 A karyotype displaying all of the chromosomes in the human genome. Note that there are two copies of each chromosome. These are the homologous chromosomes (one from each parent).

Nearly all animals employ a diploid-dominant life-cycle strategy in which the only haploid cells produced by the organism are the gametes. Early in the development of the embryo, specialized diploid cells, called germ cells, are produced within the gonads, such as the testes and ovaries. Germ cells are capable of mitosis to perpetuate the cell line and meiosis to produce gametes. Once the haploid gametes are formed, they lose the ability to divide again. There is no multicellular haploid life stage. Fertilization occurs with the fusion of two gametes, usually from different individuals, restoring the diploid state (Figure 3).

Once the two gametes have fused during fertilization, the resulting diploid cell is called a zygote. A zygote is diploid (2 copies of each chromosome), just like the original parent organism. In order to grow from a zygote into an adult organism, many more cells must be produced. The zygote goes through a cell division process called mitosis, which produces 2 identical somatic (body) cells from one original cell. After many, many rounds of mitosis, the zygote has grown into an adult organism. Because all the body cells in the adult organism were produced during the process of mitosis, the DNA within all of those cells is identical.

Figure 3 In animals, sexually reproducing adults form haploid gametes from diploid germ cells. Fusion of the gametes gives rise to a fertilized egg cell, or zygote. The zygote will undergo multiple rounds of mitosis to produce a multicellular offspring. The germ cells are generated early in the development of the zygote.

Mitosis is part of a cell reproduction cycle that results in identical daughter nuclei that are also genetically identical to the original parent nucleus. In mitosis, both the parent and the daughter nuclei contain the same number of chromosome sets—diploid for most plants and animals. Meiosis employs many of the same mechanisms as mitosis. However, the starting nucleus is always diploid and the nuclei that result at the end of a meiotic cell division are haploid. To achieve the reduction in chromosome number, meiosis consists of one round of chromosome duplication and two rounds of nuclear division.

Figure 4 An overview of meiosis. Two sets of homologous chromosomes are shown. One set is comprised of a long red and a long blue chromosome. The second set is the two shorter chromosomes. During interphase, the chromosomes are duplicated so that in the second cell the look like X’s. These two connected copies are called sister chromatids. Photo credit Rdbickel; Wikimedia.

Because the events that occur during each of the division stages are analogous to the events of mitosis, the same stage names are assigned. However, because there are two rounds of division, the stages are designated with a “I” or “II.” Thus, meiosis I is the first round of meiotic division and reduces the number of chromosome sets from two to one (Figure 4). The genetic information is also mixed during this division to create unique recombinant chromosomes. Meiosis II, in which the second round of meiotic division takes place in a way that is similar to mitosis, separates the sister chromatids (the identical copies of each chromosome produced during DNA replication that are attached at the centromere).


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