What Are Genetic Mutations?
Updated on March 18, 2024
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What Are Genetic Mutations?

Genetic mutations are changes in the DNA sequence. They happen spontaneously or due to external factors such as exposure to mutagens or viral infections.1

These changes can happen in cells responsible for passing traits to children (germline cells) or in regular body cells (somatic cells). The mutation can be passed down to the next generation if alterations happen in the cells for making babies.

Most of the time, some types of mutations may not have any health impact because cells have a good system to fix mistakes.

Despite what we see in movies, mutations rarely result in extraordinary benefits or bizarre traits. Instead, they contribute to the variety in our genes and how we evolve.

What Are Genetic Mutations? 3

Most Common Genetic Mutations

In some cases, genetic mutations may affect our health. Some mutations can lead to genetic diseases. Read the list below to learn about the common genetic mutations and their associated conditions:

  • Tay-Sachs Disease (HEXA gene mutation) – A disease that destroys the nervous system, caused by mutations in the HEXA gene.2 A carrier parent has a 50% chance of passing the mutated gene to their children.3
  • Cystic Fibrosis (CFTR gene mutation) – Affects the production of mucus, digestive juices, and sweat. Research shows that it’s common in Caucasians of Northern European Ancestry but can still occur in other ethnicities.4
  • Hemophilia (F8 or F9 gene mutation) – A blood clotting disorder, often affecting males. The mutated gene is found in the X chromosome. Carrier mothers may pass the gene to their children, affecting sons or making daughters carriers.5
  • Sickle Cell Disease (HBB gene mutation) – A blood disorder resulting from gene mutations encoding hemoglobin.
  • Thalassemia (HBB and HBA gene mutations) – Limits the natural production of hemoglobin, causing severe anemia.

Understanding common genetic mutations is important for family planning and carrier screening. It provides you with valuable information.

Consult with healthcare professionals for guidance and to explore options for managing the risks associated with genetic conditions.

When Do Genetic Mutations Happen?

Genetic mutations happen during major cellular processes such as mitosis and meiosis. Both processes shape genetic diversity.

Mitosis is responsible for the division of somatic (body) cells.

During mitosis, changes or errors in the DNA sequence may arise. This can lead to mutations that are passed on to both end-product cells. This contributes to the genetic variability observed within an organism’s cells.

Meiosis is a form of cell division in germ cells, specifically in creating sperm and egg cells.

Genetic mutations can happen during meiosis in the process of genetic recombination.6 This occurs when homologous chromosomes exchange genetic material, introducing new gene combinations and enhancing genetic diversity.

This exchange also presents the opportunity for mutations to arise, contributing to the uniqueness of each reproductive cell.

What Are Genetic Mutations? 4

Genetic mutations may also occur during DNA repair processes. At this time, cells try to correct errors that happen during replication.

While these repair mechanisms aim to maintain the integrity of the DNA sequence, they are not flawless, and some errors may persist, leading to mutations.

External factors, such as exposure to mutagens like certain chemicals or radiation, can also prompt mutations during cellular processes.

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Why Do Genetic Mutations Happen?

Genetic mutations can happen because of various factors, such as DNA copying errors, environmental influences, and other causes. Let’s look at these factors and how they can impact mutations.

DNA Copying Errors

When cells divide and DNA is replicated, there is a chance of errors occurring during this process.

The DNA replication machinery works with remarkable accuracy but is imperfect. Sometimes, incorrect nucleotides may be incorporated, leading to a mutation in the new DNA strand.

Think of it like making a copy of a document. Sometimes, just like typos, errors happen during this copying process. While things like spell check exist to try and fix mistakes, they’re still not flawless.

Environmental Factors

Three significant factors can lead to genetic mutations, and these are:

  • Mutagenic Agents – Mutagens can directly damage the DNA structure or interfere with the accurate replication of genetic material.
  • Chemical Exposure – Chemicals, like those found in tobacco smoke or industrial pollutants, can introduce mutations. These chemicals may react with the DNA molecules, causing modifications in the nucleotide sequence.
  • Radiation – Ionizing radiation, such as X-rays or ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, can cause changes in DNA. UV radiation can lead to the formation of thymine dimers, disrupting the normal DNA structure.7

Other Causes of Genetic Mutations

Some genetic mutations just happen, and these may be due to:

  • Random Mutations – Some mutations occur randomly without any known external cause. These mutations may result from random chemical reactions within cells or other natural processes.
  • Genetic Recombination – During meiosis, where germ cells (egg and sperm cells) are formed, genetic recombination can shuffle genetic material. While this is vital for creating genetic diversity, it introduces the possibility of mutations.
  • Transposons and Mobile Genetic Elements – Transposons, or “jumping genes,” are DNA sequences that can move from one location in the genome to another. Their activity can disrupt genes or promote genetic rearrangements.8

Are Genetic Mutations Bad?

No. Not all genetic mutations are bad.

Some genetic mutations are harmless, and some can even be beneficial. Specific mutations might provide advantages like helping us adapt to environmental changes or resist certain diseases.

Our bodies have the mechanism to try and fix genetic mutations before they lead to any problems.

While some mutations can lead to genetic disorders, many are part of natural variations that make each person unique.

Therefore, it’s not a simple “bad or good” scenario. Genetic mutations are a natural and ongoing part of the complex story of life.

Recognizing Harmful Mutations

The impact of genetic mutations depends on location, the gene involved, and whether they occur as somatic mutations (affecting only the person) or germline mutations (potentially hereditary).

While harmful mutations can contribute to genetic disorders, they are only part of a bigger genetic landscape, including neutral and beneficial variations.

Which Mutations Can Be Harmful?

Harmful genetic mutations can affect a person’s health and development. Here are some harmful genetic mutations:

  • Deletion – The loss of a segment of DNA. If a critical gene is deleted, it can lead to the absence or dysfunction of a vital protein.
  • Insertion – The addition of extra DNA. If inserted in the wrong place, it can disrupt normal gene function.
  • Substitution – These happen when one base pair is replaced with another. Depending on the specific change, it might lead to the production of a faulty protein.
  • Frameshift – Changes the reading frame of a gene, usually due to insertions or deletions. Frameshift mutation can ultimately affect the resulting protein’s structure and function.
  • Repeat Expansion – In certain DNA regions, there are sequence repeats. Sometimes, these repeats expand beyond a normal range, leading to genetic disorders.
  • Nonsense Mutations – These mutations create a premature stop codon in the DNA sequence, resulting in the premature termination of protein synthesis.9
  • Missense Mutations – A single nucleotide change leads to substituting one amino acid for another in the encoded protein, potentially affecting its function.
  • Chromosomal Aberrations – Large-scale mutations, such as deletions, duplications, inversions, or translocations of whole chromosome segments, can cause significant genetic disorders.10

Inherited vs. Spontaneous Mutations

Inherited mutations are genetic changes passed down from parents to their children.

On the other hand, spontaneous mutations occur randomly and are not inherited from parents. These changes can happen during DNA replication or exposure to environmental factors.

Inherited Mutations: Family Genes

Inherited mutations come from parents. They can be present in the germline cells, such as eggs and sperm, which transmit them to the next generation.

The inheritance pattern depends on various factors, and there are different modes of inheritance:

  • Autosomal Dominant – An affected person has a 50% chance of passing the mutation to each offspring. Conditions like Huntington’s disease follow this inheritance pattern.11
  • Autosomal Recessive – Both parents must carry the mutated gene to pass it on. If both parents are carriers, there’s a 25% chance the child will inherit the condition. Cystic fibrosis is an example of a condition inherited in this way.12
  • X-Linked – Genes on the X chromosome can be inherited in distinct patterns. For example, in X-linked recessive inheritance, if a mother carries the mutation on one of her X chromosomes, there’s a chance her sons will be affected.
  • Mitochondrial – Some mutations occur in the mitochondrial DNA and are passed exclusively from the mother to all of her children. Diseases like Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy follow mitochondrial inheritance.13

Spontaneous Mutations: Random Changes

Factors that contribute to spontaneous mutations include:

  • DNA Replication Errors – Occasionally, errors occur as cells divide and DNA is replicated. While there are ways to correct these errors, they are not perfect.
  • Environmental Factors – Exposure to mutagenic agents, such as certain chemicals, radiation (e.g., UV rays), and toxins, can induce mutations. These environmental factors can damage DNA and lead to genetic changes.
  • Copy Number Variations – Sometimes, errors in copying and rearranging DNA segments during cell growth and division can result in variations in the number of copies of specific genes.

How Can Genetic Testing Identify Genetic Mutations?

Genetic testing is a powerful tool that can identify genetic mutations. It can provide valuable information about a person’s risk of certain genetic conditions.

How Does Genetic Testing Work?

Here’s how genetic testing works in identifying mutations:

  1. Sample Collection – Genetic testing needs a blood, saliva, or tissue DNA sample.
  2. DNA Isolation – DNA is extracted from the sample, which is critical in analyzing the genetic material.
  3. DNA Sequencing – This can be whole genome sequencing or targetted sequencing. Whole genome sequencing analyzes an individual’s entire DNA, while targeted sequencing focuses on specific regions associated with known genetic conditions.
  4. Comparison – The sequenced DNA is compared to reference sequences to identify variations or mutations. Bioinformatics tools help analyze the vast amount of genetic information.
  5. Interpretation – Genetic experts interpret the results into:
    1. Pathogenic Mutations – Known to cause or increase the risk of a particular condition.
    2. Variants of Uncertain Significance (VUS) – Genetic mutations with unclear health implications.
    3. Benign Mutations – Changes not associated with disease.

What Do I Do After I Get My Test Results?

After getting your genetic test results, the next step is to seek clinical consultation.

Genetic counselors and healthcare professionals can discuss the results with you or your family. They explain the implications of identified mutations and potential preventive or therapeutic measures.

Identified mutations are assessed for their relevance to health. Some mutations may increase the risk of certain diseases, while others may have no significant impact.

Is Genetic Testing Accurate?

Genetic testing is generally accurate, but accuracy depends on many factors.

The type, the quality of the laboratory conducting the analysis, and the complexity of interpreting genetic variations affect the test’s accuracy.

Advanced techniques like next-generation sequencing have significantly enhanced the accuracy of identifying genetic mutations.

Can I Prevent Genetic Conditions?

Often, there’s very little you can do to prevent genetic conditions. Yet, there are some things you can do to manage and help minimize the risks.

Understanding your family medical history is crucial, as it helps identify potential genetic risks and allows for informed decisions about genetic testing.

You can work with healthcare professionals to develop health management strategies if you discover a genetic predisposition to certain conditions.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle is another critical aspect of managing genetic risks.14

These include:

  • Maintaining a balanced diet
  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption
  • Managing stress

Genetic testing and counseling can provide valuable information about your genetic makeup, enabling you to make informed decisions about family planning, early detection, and preventive measures.

For instance, knowing about an increased risk for certain cancers may prompt more frequent screenings or preventive surgeries.

Living with Genetic Mutations

Living with a genetic mutation means dealing with it every day, but there are things you can do to make life better, such as:

  • Staying on top of medications
  • Following a specific diet
  • Keeping regular check-ups with the doctor

Doing these things can help manage symptoms and improve overall quality of life.

It’s also important to get support.

Genetic counseling is a way to understand more about your condition, explore available resources, and make informed choices about your health.

Joining support groups lets you connect with others facing similar challenges, where you can share experiences, get advice, and find emotional support. This network can make a big difference in handling the ups and downs of living with a genetic mutation.

The Future of Genetics

The future of genetics is full of promise, with ongoing research reshaping how we view genetic mutations.

Scientists are making strides that could lead to new ways of treating and preventing genetic conditions, such as genetic therapy.15

Yet, as we move forward, it’s crucial to consider the ethical side of things. Questions about the morality of genetic modification and testing need careful thought and discussion.

Finding the right balance between scientific advancements and ethical values is essential for using genetic knowledge in ways that benefit us responsibly.

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Updated on March 18, 2024
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15 sources cited
Updated on March 18, 2024
  1. Mutation.” National Human Genome Research Institute.
  2. Tay-Sachs disease.” Mayo Clinic.
  3. What Do We Know About Heredity and Tay-Sachs Disease?” National Human Genome Research Institute.
  4. The Incidence of Cystic Fibrosis in the Central Region of Anatolia in Turkey Between 2015 and 2016.” National Library of Medicine.
  5. How Hemophilia is Inherited.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  6. Mutation, Repair and Recombination.” National Library of Medicine.
  7. Lethal Effects of UV Radiation.” University of Wyoming.
  8. Mobile Elements in the Human Genome: Implications for Disease.” Genome Medicine.
  9. Nonsense Mutation.” National Human Genome Research Institute.
  10. Deciphering the Pathogenic Consequences of Chromosomal Aberrations in Human Genetic Disease.” National Library of Medicine.
  11. Huntington’s Disease.” Mayo Clinic.
  12. Genetics, Autosomal Recessive.” National Library of Medicine.
  13. Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON).” National Library of Medicine.
  14. Genetics, Disease Prevention and Treatment FAQ.” National Human Genome Research Institute.
  15. Genetic Therapies.” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Katrina Canlas
Katrina Canlas
Content Contributor
KC Canlas is an experienced content writer for Know Your DNA. She combines her passion for storytelling with a deep understanding of DNA and genetics. She creates engaging content that can empower readers with knowledge about their genetic makeup, promoting a greater understanding of the role DNA plays in their lives.