Chromosome, the microscopic threadlike part of the cell that carries hereditary information in the form of genes. A defining feature of any chromosome is its compactness. For instance, the 46 chromosomes found in human cells have a combined length of 200 nm (1 nm = 10? 9 metre); if the chromosomes were to be unraveled, the genetic material they contain would measure roughly 2 metres (about 6.5 feet) in length. The compactness of chromosomes plays an important role in helping to organize genetic material during cell division and enabling it to fit inside structures such as the nucleus of a cell, the average diameter of which is about 5 to 10 ?m (1 ?m = 0.00l mm, or 0.000039 inch), or the polygonal head of a virus particle, which may be in the range of just 20 to 30 nm in diameter.
The structure and location of chromosomes are among the chief differences between viruses, prokaryotes, and eukaryotes. The nonliving viruses have chromosomes consisting of either DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (ribonucleic acid); this material is very tightly packed into the viral head. Among organisms with prokaryotic cells (i.e., bacteria and blue-green algae), chromosomes consist entirely of DNA. The single chromosome of a prokaryotic cell is not enclosed within a nuclear membrane. Among eukaryotes, the chromosomes are contained in a membrane-bound cell nucleus. The chromosomes of a eukaryotic cell consist primarily of DNA attached to a protein core. They also contain RNA. The remainder of this article pertains to eukaryotic chromosomes.
Every eukaryotic species has a characteristic number of chromosomes (chromosome number). In species that reproduce asexually, the chromosome number is the same in all the cells of the organism. Among sexually reproducing organisms, the number of chromosomes in the body (somatic) cells is diploid (2n; a pair of each chromosome), twice the haploid (1n) number found in the sex cells, or gametes. The haploid number is produced during meiosis. During fertilization, two gametes combine to produce a zygote, a single cell with a diploid set of chromosomes. See also polyploidy.
Somatic cells reproduce by dividing, a process called mitosis. Between cell divisions the chromosomes exist in an uncoiled state, producing a diffuse mass of genetic material known as chromatin. The uncoiling of chromosomes enables DNA synthesis to begin. During this phase, DNA duplicates itself in preparation for cell division.
Following replication, the DNA condenses into chromosomes. At this point, each chromosome actually consists of a set of duplicate chromatids that are held together by the centromere. The centromere is the point of attachment of the kinetochore, a protein structure that is connected to the spindle fibres (part of a structure that pulls the chromatids to opposite ends of the cell). During the middle stage in cell division, the centromere duplicates, and the chromatid pair separates; each chromatid becomes a separate chromosome at this point. The cell divides, and both of the daughter cells have a complete (diploid) set of chromosomes. The chromosomes uncoil in the new cells, again forming the diffuse network of chromatin.
Among many organisms that have separate sexes, there are two basic types of chromosomes: sex chromosomes and autosomes. Autosomes control the inheritance of all the characteristics except the sex-linked ones, which are controlled by the sex chromosomes. Humans have 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes. All act in the same way during cell division. For information on sex-linked characteristics, see linkage group.
Chromosome breakage is the physical breakage of subunits of a chromosome. It is usually followed by reunion (frequently at a foreign site, resulting in a chromosome unlike the original). Breakage and reunion of homologous chromosomes during meiosis are the basis for the classical model of crossing over, which results in unexpected types of offspring of a mating.
Chromosome vs. molecular locations
Chromosome location, or cytogenetic location, is one way to describe the location of gene on a chromosome. Another way to identify the location of a gene is by using the molecular location. The sequencing of the base pairs describes the molecular location of the gene on a chromosome. The molecular location is more precise; however, small variations in the address may occur between research groups as a result of varying genome sequencing methods.
Role of chromosomes during cell division
When the chromosomes condense during cell division, they have already undergone replication. Each chromosome thus consists of two identical replicas, called chromatids, joined at a point called the centromere. During mitosis the sister chromatids separate, one going to each daughter cell. Chromosomes thus meet the first criterion for being the repository of genes: they are replicated, and a full copy is passed to each daughter cell during mitosis.
It was the behaviour of chromosomes during meiosis, that provided the strongest evidence for their being the carriers of genes. In 1902 American scientist Walter S. Sutton reported on his observations of the action of chromosomes during sperm formation in grasshoppers. Sutton had observed that, during meiosis, each chromosome (consisting of two chromatids) becomes paired with a physically similar chromosome. These homologous chromosomes separate during meiosis, with one member of each pair going to a different cell. Assuming that one member of each homologous pair was of maternal origin and the other was paternally derived, here was an event that fulfilled the behaviour of genes postulated in Mendel’s first law.
It is now known that the number of chromosomes within the nucleus is usually constant in all individuals of a given species—for example, 46 in the human, 40 in the house mouse, 8 in the vinegar fly (Drosophila melanogaster; sometimes called fruit fly), 20 in corn (maize), 24 in the tomato, and 48 in the potato. In sexually reproducing organisms, this number is called the diploid number of chromosomes, as it represents the double dose of chromosomes received from two parents. The nucleus of a gamete, however, contains half this number of chromosomes, or the haploid number. Thus, a human gamete contains 23 chromosomes, while a Drosophila gamete contains four. Meiosis produces the haploid gametes.