The reality of mutations

Do you remember the ninja turtles? Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello were four turtles that suffered a mutation when they were bathed with a radioactive liquid. Fortunately or unfortunately, a mutation cannot turn us into ninja turtles, but it can have other effects. Next, I tell you what mutations are.

WHAT ARE MUTATIONS?

Our body is like a great factory in which our cells are the workers. These, thanks to their internal machinery, make the factory stay afloat with the least possible problems. The constant operation of our cells (24/7), sometimes causes errors in their machinery. This generates imperfections in the genetic code, which generally go unnoticed. It is true that cells do everything possible to fix the failures produced, but sometimes they are inevitable and lead to the generation of diseases or even to the death of the cell.

Mutations are these small errors, it means, mutations are stable and inheritable changes that alter the DNA sequence. This fact introduces new genetic variants in the population, generating genetic diversity.

Generally, mutations tend to be eliminated, but occasionally some can succeed and escape the DNA repair mechanisms of our cells. However, they only remain stable and inheritable in the DNA if they affect a cell type, the germ cells.

The organisms that reproduce sexually have two types of cells: germinal and somatic. While the former transmit genetic information from parents to children, somatic cells form the body of the organism. Because the information of germ cells, which are what will give rise to gametes (sperm and oocytes) passed from generation to generation, they must be protected against different genetic changes to safeguard each individual.

Most mutations are harmful, species cannot allow the accumulation of large number of mutations in their germ cells. For this reason not all mutations are fixed in the population, and many of these variants are usually eliminated. Occasionally some may be incorporated into all individuals of the species.

The mutation rate is the frequency at which new mutations occur in a gene. Each specie has a mutation rate of its own, modulated by natural selection. This implies that each species can be confronted differently from the changes produced by the environment.

Spontaneous mutation rates are very low, in the order of 10-5-10-6 per gene and generation. In this way, mutations do not produce rapid changes in the population.

THE ROLE OF NATURAL SELECTION

Changes of nucleotides in somatic cells can give rise to variant or mutant cells, some of which, through natural selection, get more advantageous with respect to their partners and proliferate very fast, giving us as a result, in the extreme case, cancer, that is, uncontrolled cell proliferation. Some of the cells in the body begin to divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissues, a process known as metastasis

But the best way to understand the role of natural selection of which the naturist Charles Darwin spoke is with the example of spotted moths (Biston betularia). In England there are two types of moths, those of white colour and those of black colour (Figure 1). The former used to be the most common, but between 1848 and 1898 black moths were imposed.

biston
Figure 1. Biston betularia, white and black moths (Source: TorruBlog)

This change occurred at the same time that cities became more industrial, in which coal became the main fuel for power plants. The soot of this rock dyed the sky, the soil and the buildings of the cities black. Tree trunks were also affected, where the moths were camouflaged.

The consequence of this fact was that white moths could not hide from their predators, whereas those that were black found a successful exit camouflaging well on the tinted trunks. With the change of colour of their hiding place they had more opportunities to survive and reproduce (Video 1).

Video 1. Industrial melanism, white and black moth (Source: YouTube)

This is a clear example of how changes in the environment influence the variability of gene frequencies, which vary in response to new factors in the environment.

TYPES OF MUTATIONS

There is no single type of mutation, but there are several types of mutation that can affect the DNA sequence and, rebound, the genetic code. However, not all mutations have the same effect.

There are many and different types of mutations, which are classified by mutational levels. These levels are based on the amount of hereditary material affected by the mutation and go up in rank according to the number of genes involved. If the mutation affects only one gene we speak of gene mutation, whereas if it affects a chromosomal segment that includes several genes we refer to chromosomal mutation. When the mutation affects the genome, affecting whole chromosomes by excess or by defect, we speak of genomic mutation.

An example of a point mutation is found in cystic fibrosis, a hereditary genetic disease that produces an alteration in the secretion of mucus, affecting the respiratory and digestive systems. A point mutation affects the gene that codes for the CFTR protein. The affected people receive from both parents the defective gene, which, having no copy of the good gene, the protein will not be functional. The result is that the secretions produced by the human body are thicker than usual, producing an accumulation in the respiratory tract.

REFERENCES

  • Ramos, M. et al. El código genético, el secreto de la vida (2017) RBA Libros
  • Alberts, B. et al. Biología molecular de la célula (2010). Editorial Omega, 5a edición
  • Cooper, G.M., Hausman R.E. La Célula (2009). Editorial Marbán, 5a edición
  • Bioinformática UAB
  • Webs UCM
  • Main picture: Cine Premiere

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