Arxiu d'etiquetes: cell

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


  • 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


Cracking the genetic code

In the same way that Alan Turing decoded Enigma, the encryption machine used by the German army in World War II, several scientists managed to decipher the genetic code. The solution to this framework has allowed us to understand how cells work and make genetic manipulation possible.


A code is a system of replacing the words in a message with other words or symbols, so that nobody can understand it unless they know the system. For example the genetic code.

Although it seems to be a lie, all living beings (except for some bacteria) biologically work in the same way. And it is that Jacques Monod already said, everything that is verified as true for E. coli must also be true for elephants.

From the cells of the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, to the cells of a hummingbird, passing through humans, are the same. This is thanks to the genetic code, which allows the information of each gene to be transmitted to the proteins, the executors of this information.

This flow of information was named by Francis Crick, in 1958, as the central dogma of molecular biology (Figure 1). In it he claimed that information flows from DNA to RNA, and then from RNA to proteins. This is how genetic information is transmitted and expressed unidirectionally. However, later modifications were added. Crick claimed that only DNA can be duplicated and transcribed to RNA. However, it has been seen that the replication of its RNA also occurs in viruses and that it can perform a reverse transcription to generate DNA again.

Figure 1. Central dogma of molecular biology. Red arrows: Francis Crick’s way. Grey arrows: later modifications (Source: Quora)


Inside the cells three different languages ​​are spoken, but they can be related through the genetic code.

The one we already know is the language of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), wound in a double chain and composed of 4 letters that correspond to the nitrogenous bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G).

Another language very similar to the latter is that of RNA. It differs from DNA mainly in three aspects: (i) it is composed of a single chain instead of being double-stranded, (ii) its sugars are ribose instead of deoxyribose (hence the name of ribonucleic acid) and (iii) it contains the base uracil (U) instead of T. Neither the change of sugar nor the substitution of U by T alters the pairing with base A, so that RNA synthesis can be performed directly on a DNA template.

The last language that remains for us to know is that of proteins, formed by 20 amino acids. The amino acids constitute each and every one of the proteins of any living organism. The order of the amino acids that form the chain of the protein determines its function (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Table of 20 amino acids (Source: Compound Interest)


As we have been saying, the genetic code is the rules that follow the nucleotide sequence of a gene, through the RNA intermediary, to be translated into an amino acid sequence of a protein. There are several types of RNA, but the one that interests us is the messenger RNA (mRNA), essential in the transcription process.
The cells decode the RNA by reading its nucleotides in groups of three (Figure 3). Since mRNA is a polymer of four different nucleotides, there are 64 possible combinations of three nucleotides (43). This brings us to one of its characteristics: it is degenerate. This means that there are several triplets for the same amino acid (synonymous codons). For example, proline is coded by the triplets CCU, CCC, CCA and CCG.

Figure 3. The genetic code with the table of 20 amino acids (Source: BioNinja)

The genetic code is not ambiguous since each triplet has its own meaning. All triplets make sense, either encode a particular amino acid or indicate read completion. Most amino acids are encoded by at least two codons. Methionine and tryptophan are the only amino acids that are codified only by a codon. But each codon codes only for an amino acid or stop sign. In addition, it is unidirectional, all triplets are read in the 5′-3′ direction.
The AUG codon serves as the start codon at which translation begins. There is only one start codon that codes for the amino acid methionine, while there are three stop codons (UAA, UAG and UGA). These codons cause the polypeptide to be released from the ribosome, where the translation occurs.
The position of the start codon determines the point where translation of the mRNA and its reading frame will begin. This last point is important because the same nucleotide sequence can encode completely different polypeptides depending on the frame in which it is read (Figure 4). However, only one of the three reading patterns of a mRNA encodes the correct protein. The displacement in the reading frame causes the message no longer to make sense.

Marco de Lectura
Figure 4. Possible frameshifts (Source:


As we said at the beginning, one of the main characteristics of the genetic code is that it is universal, since almost all living beings use it (with the exception of some bacteria). This is important because a genetic code shared by such diverse organisms provides important evidence of a common origin of life on Earth. The species of the Earth of today probably evolved from an ancestral organism in which the genetic code was already present. Because it is essential for cellular function, it should tend to remain unchanged in the species through the generations. This type of evolutionary process can explain the remarkable similarity of the genetic code in present organisms.

Although the human being itself continues to be an enigma for science, the revolution of the deciphering of the genetic code has allowed us to delve into the functioning of our body, specifically that of our cells, and cross borders to genetic manipulation.



  • 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
  • Gotta Love Cells
  • BioNinja
  • Main picture:


Photosynthesis and vegetal life

In this article we will talk about photosynthesis and about the first kinds of vegetal life. In the current systematic, the term plant fits primarily to terrestrial plants, while the term vegetal is an old term of Aristotelian connotation that refers to organisms with photosynthetic functions. But, as with everything, there are exceptions.

The term plant has existed for many years. But, previously, Aristotle was who classified the living organisms into three mainly groups:

  • Vegetals (vegetative soul): can perform nutrition and reproduction.
  • Animals (sensitive soul): nutrition, reproduction, perception, movement and desire.
  • Humans: can do all these things and also have the ability to reason.
Aristotle (Public domain)

This simplistic way of perceiving the living world has lasted for a long time, but has varied due to different studies by several authors like Linnaeus or Whittaker, among others.

A very current classification was proposed in 2012, The Revised Classification of Eukaryotes. J. Eukariot. Microbiol. 59 (5): 429-493; this one reveals a true tree of life.

image description
Sina ;. Adl, et al. (2012) The revised classification of Eukaryotes.  J Eukaryot Microbiol.; 59 (5): 429-493


Photosynthesis is a metabolic process that allows to use light energy to transform simple inorganic compounds into organic complexes. To do this, they need a number of photosynthetic pigments that capture these light rays and that through a series of chemical reactions allow to perform internal processes that give rise to organic compounds.

This nutritious option has been developed by many organisms in multiple groups and branches of the tree of life of eukaryotes. And among them appears  the Archaeplastida, the lineage of organisms that has led to land plants.

Terrestrial plants (Embryophyta) are easily definable, but what about the algae? Usually, they are defined as eukaryotic organisms living primarily in the aquatic environment and with a relatively simple organization, but this is not always true. For this reason, all Archaeplastida groups falling outside the concept of land plants (a small group within Archaeplastida) are called “algae“.

There are also photosynthetic prokaryotes into Eubacteria domain, and it is in these where photosynthesis is highly variable. While in eukaryotes is unique, oxygenic photosynthesis.

The Eubacteria domain is very broad, and among its branches there are up to 5 large groups of photosynthetic organisms: Chloroflexi, Firmicutes, Chlorobi, Proteobacteria and Cyanobacteria. The latter are the only eubacterial performing an oxygenic photosynthesis; with release of oxygen from water molecules and using hydrogen from water as electron donor. The rest performs an anoxygenic photosynthesis: the electron donor is sulfur or hydrogen sulfide and, during this process, oxigen is never released, since water rarely intervenes; which is why they are known as purple sulfur bacteria.

Photosynthesis is probably older than life itself. Oxygenic photosynthesis, which is tightly related to this group of bacteria, the cyanobacteria, probably occurs later. But it was crucial for the development of life on our planet, since transformed the atmosphere in a more oxygenated one and, due to this, life on Earth had become more diverse and has evolved.

Amazon, the lungs of the Earh (Author: Christian Cruzado; Flickr)


Cyanobacteria share pigments with terrestrial plants and other photosynthetic eukaryotes. These pigments are primarily chlorophylls a and b (the universal ones); c and d are only present in some groups. There are two more pigments that are univeral: carotenes, these ones act as antennas that transfer the captured energy to chlorophylls and also protect the reaction center against autoxidation, and phycobiliproteins (phycocyanin, phycoerythrin, etc.), which appear in both cyanobacteria and other eukaryotic groups photosynthetic and are responsible for capturing light energy.

But, why exist this variability of accessory pigments? because each pigment have a different absorption spectrum, and the fact to present different molecules allows to collect much better the wavelenght of sunlight; i.e., energy capture is much more efficient.

On the other hand, the anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria don’t present chlorophylls and, instead, have specific molecules of the prokaryotes, the bacteriochlorophylls.

Absorption spectrum of different pigments (Reference: York University)

Where are pigments located?

In the organisms with oxygenic photosynthesis, that is, in cyanobacteria and photosynthetic eukaryotes, pigments are located into complex structures. In cyanobacteria, there are various concentric flattened sacs called thylakoids in the peripheral cytoplasm, which are only surrounded by a membrane. And it is in the lumen of the thylakoid where pigments are located. In eukaryotes, however, we found chloroplasts, which are intracellular organelles full of thylakoids with at least two membranes and they are particular of photosynthetic eukaryotes. In these chloroplasts is where photosynthesis takes place. Both groups, therefore, perform oxygenic photosynthesis within the thylakoids; the difference is that in eukaryotes, the thylakoids are located into the chloroplasts.

Plant cells where we can see chloroplasts (Author: Kristian Peters – Fabelfroh)

On the other hand, in organisms with anoxygenic photosynthesis there are different options. The purple bacteria contain pigments in chromatophores, a kind of vesicles in the center or periphery of the cell. In contrast, the green bacteria (Chlorobi and Chloroflexi) present several flattened vesicles at the periphery of the cell, on the plasma membrane, where bacteriochlorophyll are located. In Heliobacterium, the pigment is attached to the inner surface of the plasma membrane. They are generally not complex structures, and often this structures have simple membranes.


The fossil evidence of the earliest photosynthetic organisms are the stromatolites (3.2 Ga ago). They are structures formed by overlapping thin layers of organisms together with their own calcium carbonate deposits. These occurs in shallow waters, in warm and well-lit seas. Although many seem straight columns, deviations are observed because they try to be oriented towards the sunlight to perform photosynthesis. In the past they had a crucial importance in building reefs-like formations and they also participated into the atmospheric composition changes. Currently, there are some which are still alive.

Stromatolites (Author:Alessandro, Flickr)


  • Notes from the Environmental Biology degree (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and the Master’s degree in Biodiversity (Universitat de Barcelona).
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