Glossary of Genetic Terms
An ALLELE is one of two or more versions of a gene. An individual inherits two alleles for each gene, one from each parent. If the two alleles are the same, the individual is homozygous for that gene. If the alleles are different, the individual is heterozygous. Though the term allele was originally used to describe variation among genes, it now also refers to variation among non-coding DNA sequences.
AUTOSOMAL DOMINANCE is a pattern of inheritance characteristic of some genetic diseases. “Autosomal” means that the gene in question is located on one of the numbered, or non-sex, chromosomes. “Dominant” means that a single copy of the disease-associated mutation is enough to cause the disease. This is in contrast to a recessive disorder, where two copies of the mutation are needed to cause the disease. Huntington’s disease is a common example of an autosomal dominant genetic disorder.
An AUTOSOME is any of the numbered chromosomes, as opposed to the sex chromosomes. Humans have 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes (the X and Y). Autosomes are numbered roughly in relation to their sizes. That is, Chromosome 1 has approximately 2,800 genes, while chromosome 22 has approximately 750 genes.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the first two genes found to be associated with inherited forms of breast cancer. Both genes normally act as tumor suppressors, meaning that they help regulate cell division. When these genes are rendered inactive due to mutation, uncontrolled cell growth results, leading to breast cancer. Women with mutations in either gene have a much higher risk for developing breast cancer than women without mutations in the genes.
A CANDIDATE GENE is a gene whose chromosomal location is associated with a particular disease or other phenotype. Because of its location, the gene is suspected of causing the disease or other phenotype.
A CARRIER is an individual who carries and is capable of passing on a genetic mutation associated with a disease and may or may not display disease symptoms. Carriers are associated with diseases inherited as recessive traits. In order to have the disease, an individual must have inherited mutated alleles from both parents. An individual having one normal allele and one mutated allele does not have the disease. Two carriers may produce children with the disease.
CARRIER SCREENING is a type of genetic testing performed on people who display no symptoms for a genetic disorder but may be at risk for passing it on to their children. A carrier for a genetic disorder has inherited one normal and one abnormal allele for a gene associated with the disorder. A child must inherit two abnormal alleles in order for symptoms to appear. Prospective parents with a family history of a genetic disorders are candidates for carrier screening.
A CELL is the basic building block of living things. All cells can be sorted into one of two groups: eukaryotes and prokaryotes. A eukaryote has a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles, while a prokaryote does not. Plants and animals are made of numerous eukaryotic cells, while many microbes, such as bacteria, consist of single cells. An adult human body is estimated to contain between 10 and 100 trillion cells.
A CHROMOSOME is an organized package of DNA found in the nucleus of the cell. Different organisms have different numbers of chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes–22 pairs of numbered chromosomes, called autosomes, and one pair of sex chromosomes, X and Y. Each parent contributes one chromosome to each pair so that offspring get half of their chromosomes from their mother and half from their father.
CODOMINANCE is a relationship between two versions of a gene. Individuals receive one version of a gene, called an allele, from each parent. If the alleles are different, the dominant allele usually will be expressed, while the effect of the other allele, called recessive, is masked. In codominance, however, neither allele is recessive and the phenotypes of both alleles are expressed.
CONGENITAL CONDITIONS are those present from birth. Birth defects are described as being congenital. They can be caused by a genetic mutation, an unfavorable environment in the uterus, or a combination of both factors.
DELETION is a type of mutation involving the loss of genetic material. It can be small, involving a single missing DNA base pair, or large, involving a piece of a chromosome.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) is the chemical name for the molecule that carries genetic instructions in all living things. The DNA molecule consists of two strands that wind around one another to form a shape known as a double helix. Each strand has a backbone made of alternating sugar (deoxyribose) and phosphate groups. Attached to each sugar is one of four bases–adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). The two strands are held together by bonds between the bases; adenine bonds with thymine, and cytosine bonds with guanine. The sequence of the bases along the backbones serves as instructions for assembling protein and RNA molecules.
DEOXYRIBONUCLEIC ACID (DNA) is the chemical name for the molecule that carries genetic instructions in all living things. The DNA molecule consists of two strands that wind around one another to form a shape known as a double helix. Each strand has a backbone made of alternating sugar (deoxyribose) and phosphate groups. Attached to each sugar is one of four bases–adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). The two strands are held together by bonds between the bases; adenine bonds with thymine, and cytosine bonds with guanine. The sequence of the bases along the backbones serves as instructions for assembling protein and RNA molecules
DNA SEQUENCING is a laboratory technique used to determine the exact sequence of bases (A, C, G, and T) in a DNA molecule. The DNA base sequence carries the information a cell needs to assemble protein and RNA molecules. DNA sequence information is important to scientists investigating the functions of genes. The technology of DNA sequencing was made faster and less expensive as a part of the Human Genome Project.
DOMINANT refers to the relationship between two versions of a gene. Individuals receive two versions of each gene, known as alleles, from each parent. If the alleles of a gene are different, one allele will be expressed; it is the dominant gene. The effect of the other allele, called recessive, is masked.
DOUBLE HELIX is the description of the structure of a DNA molecule. A DNA molecule consists of two strands that wind around each other like a twisted ladder. Each strand has a backbone made of alternating groups of sugar (deoxyribose) and phosphate groups. Attached to each sugar is one of four bases: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), or thymine (T). The two strands are held together by bonds between the bases, adenine forming a base pair with thymine, and cytosine forming a base pair with guanine.
DUPLICATION is a type of mutation that involves the production of one or more copies of a gene or region of a chromosome. Gene and chromosome duplications occur in all organisms, though they are especially prominent among plants. Gene duplication is an important mechanism by which evolution occurs.
EPIGENETICS is an emerging field of science that studies heritable changes caused by the activation and deactivation of genes without any change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism. The word epigenetics is of Greek origin and literally means over and above (epi) the genome.
A FAMILY HISTORY is a record of medical information about an individual and their biological family. Human genetic data is becoming more prevalent and easy to obtain. Increasingly, this data is being used to identify individuals who are at increased risk for developing genetic disorders that run in families.
A FIRST DEGREE RELATIVE is a family member who shares about 50 percent of their genes with a particular individual in a family. First degree relatives include parents, offspring, and siblings.
The GENE is the basic physical unit of inheritance. Genes are passed from parents to offspring and contain the information needed to specify traits. Genes are arranged, one after another, on structures called chromosomes. A chromosome contains a single, long DNA molecule, only a portion of which corresponds to a single gene. Humans have approximately 20,000 genes arranged on their chromosomes.
GENE MAPPING is the process of establishing the locations of genes on the chromosomes. Early gene maps used linkage analysis. The closer two genes are to each other on the chromosome, the more likely it is that they will be inherited together. By following inheritance patterns, the relative positions of genes can be determined. More recently, scientists have used recombinant DNA (rDNA) techniques to establish the actual physical locations of genes on the chromosomes.
GENE THERAPY is an experimental technique for treating disease by altering the patient’s genetic material. Most often, gene therapy works by introducing a healthy copy of a defective gene into the patient’s cells.
GENETIC CODE – The instructions in a gene that tell the cell how to make a specific protein. A, C, G, and T are the “letters” of the DNA code; they stand for the chemicals adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T), respectively, that make up the nucleotide bases of DNA. Each gene’s code combines the four chemicals in various ways to spell out three-letter “words” that specify which amino acid is needed at every step in making a protein.
GENETIC COUNSELING is the professional interaction between a healthcare provider with specialized knowledge of genetics and an individual or family. The genetic counselor determines whether a condition in the family may be genetic and estimates the chances that another relative may be affected. Genetic counselors also offer and interpret genetic tests that may help to estimate risk of disease. The genetic counselor conveys information in an effort to address concerns of the client and provides psychological counseling to help families adapt to their condition or risk.
GENETIC DISCRIMINATION is prejudice directed against people who have or may have a genetic disease. Genetic discrimination can involve being denied employment or health insurance. In a healthcare context, it can refer to people being treated based on their genetic status rather than by some more relevant criterion.
The GENETIC INFORMATION NONDISCRIMINATION ACT (GINA) is federal legislation that makes it unlawful to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their genetic profiles in regard to health insurance and employment. These protections are intended to encourage Americans to take advantage of genetic testing as part of their medical care. President George W. Bush signed GINA into law on May 22, 2008.
A GENETIC MAP is a type of chromosome map that shows the relative locations of genes and other important features. The map is based on the idea of linkage, which means that the closer two genes are to each other on the chromosome, the greater the probability that they will be inherited together. By following inheritance patterns, the relative locations of genes along the chromosome are established.
A GENETIC MARKER is a DNA sequence with a known physical location on a chromosome. Genetic markers can help link an inherited disease with the responsible gene. DNA segments close to each other on a chromosome tend to be inherited together. Genetic markers are used to track the inheritance of a nearby gene that has not yet been identified, but whose approximate location is known. The genetic marker itself may be a part of a gene or may have no known function.
GENETIC TESTING is the use of a laboratory test to look for genetic variations associated with a disease. The results of a genetic test can be used to confirm or rule out a suspected genetic disease or to determine the likelihood of a person passing on a mutation to their offspring. Genetic testing may be performed prenatally or after birth. Ideally, a person who undergoes a genetic test will discuss the meaning of the test and its results with a genetic counselor.
The GENOME is the entire set of genetic instructions found in a cell. In humans, the genome consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes, found in the nucleus, as well as a small chromosome found in the cells’ mitochondria. Each set of 23 chromosomes contains approximately 3.1 billion bases of DNA sequence.
A GENOTYPE is an individual’s collection of genes. The term also can refer to the two alleles inherited for a particular gene. The genotype is expressed when the information encoded in the genes’ DNA is used to make protein and RNA molecules. The expression of the genotype contributes to the individual’s observable traits, called the phenotype.
A GERM LINE is the sex cells (eggs and sperm) that are used by sexually reproducing organisms to pass on genes from generation to generation. Egg and sperm cells are called germ cells, in contrast to the other cells of the body that are called somatic cells.
HETEROZYGOUS refers to having inherited different forms of a particular gene from each parent. A heterozygous genotype stands in contrast to a homozygous genotype, where an individual inherits identical forms of a particular gene from each parent.
HOMOZYGOUS is a genetic condition where an individual inherits the same alleles for a particular gene from both parents.
The HUMAN GENOME PROJECT was an international project that mapped and sequenced the entire human genome. Completed in April 2003, data from the project are freely available to researchers and others interested in genetics and human health.
An INHERITED TRAIT is one that is genetically determined. Inherited traits are passed from parent to offspring according to the rules of Mendelian genetics. Most traits are not strictly determined by genes, but rather are influenced by both genes and environment.
LINKAGE is the close association of genes or other DNA sequences on the same chromosome. The closer two genes are to each other on the chromosome, the greater the probability that they will be inherited together.
MAPPING is the process of making a representative diagram cataloging the genes and other features of a chromosome and showing their relative locations. Cytogenetic maps are made using photomicrographs of chromosomes stained to reveal structural variations. Genetic maps use the idea of linkage to estimate the relative locations of genes. Physical maps, made using recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology, show the actual physical locations of landmarks along a chromosome.
A MARKER is a DNA sequence with a known physical location on a chromosome. Markers can help link an inherited disease with the responsible genes. DNA segments close to each other on a chromosome tend to be inherited together. Markers are used to track the inheritance of a nearby gene that has not yet been identified but whose approximate location is known. The marker itself may be a part of a gene or may have no known function.
MESSENGER RNA (mRNA) is a single-stranded RNA molecule that is complementary to one of the DNA strands of a gene. The mRNA is an RNA version of the gene that leaves the cell nucleus and moves to the cytoplasm where proteins are made. During protein synthesis, an organelle called a ribosome moves along the mRNA, reads its base sequence, and uses the genetic code to translate each three-base triplet, or codon, into its corresponding amino acid.
MITOCHONDRIAL DNA is the small circular chromosome found inside mitochondria. The mitochondria are organelles found in cells that are the sites of energy production. The mitochondria, and thus mitochondrial DNA, are passed from mother to offspring.
A MUTAGEN is a chemical or physical phenomenon, such as ionizing radiation, that promotes errors in DNA replication. Exposure to a mutagen can produce DNA mutations that cause or contribute to diseases such as cancer.
A MUTATION is a change in a DNA sequence. Mutations can result from DNA copying mistakes made during cell division, exposure to ionizing radiation, exposure to chemicals called mutagens, or infection by viruses. Germ line mutations occur in the eggs and sperm and can be passed on to offspring, while somatic mutations occur in body cells and are not passed on.
NEWBORN SCREENING is testing performed on newborn babies to detect a wide variety of disorders. Typically, testing is performed on a blood sample obtained from a heel prick when the baby is two or three days old. In the United States, newborn screening is mandatory for several different genetic disorders, though the exact set of required tests differs from state to state.
NUCLEIC ACID is an important class of macromolecules found in all cells and viruses. The functions of nucleic acids have to do with the storage and expression of genetic information. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) encodes the information the cell needs to make proteins. A related type of nucleic acid, called ribonucleic acid (RNA), comes in different molecular forms that participate in protein synthesis.
An ONCOGENE is a mutated gene that contributes to the development of a cancer. In their normal, unmutated state, oncogenes are called proto-oncogenes, and they play roles in the regulation of cell division. Some oncogenes work like putting your foot down on the accelerator of a car, pushing a cell to divide. Other oncogenes work like removing your foot from the brake while parked on a hill, also causing the cell to divide.
A PEDIGREE is a genetic representation of a family tree that diagrams the inheritance of a trait or disease though several generations. The pedigree shows the relationships between family members and indicates which individuals express or silently carry the trait in question.
PHARMACOGENOMICS is a branch of pharmacology concerned with using DNA and amino acid sequence data to inform drug development and testing. An important application of pharmacogenomics is correlating individual genetic variation with drug responses.
A PHENOTYPE is an individual’s observable traits, such as height, eye color, and blood type. The genetic contribution to the phenotype is called the genotype. Some traits are largely determined by the genotype, while other traits are largely determined by environmental factors.
POLYMERASE CHAIN REACTION (PCR) is a laboratory technique used to amplify DNA sequences. The method involves using short DNA sequences called primers to select the portion of the genome to be amplified. The temperature of the sample is repeatedly raised and lowered to help a DNA replication enzyme copy the target DNA sequence. The technique can produce a billion copies of the target sequence in just a few hours.
A PROBAND is an individual being studied or reported on. A proband is usually the first affected individual in a family who brings a genetic disorder to the attention of the medical community.
PROTEINS are an important class of molecules found in all living cells. A protein is composed of one or more long chains of amino acids, the sequence of which corresponds to the DNA sequence of the gene that encodes it. Proteins play a variety of roles in the cell, including structural (cytoskeleton), mechanical (muscle), biochemical (enzymes), and cell signaling (hormones). Proteins are also an essential part of diet.
RECESSIVE is a quality found in the relationship between two versions of a gene. Individuals receive one version of a gene, called an allele, from each parent. If the alleles are different, the dominant allele will be expressed, while the effect of the other allele, called recessive, is masked. In the case of a recessive genetic disorder, an individual must inherit two copies of the mutated allele in order for the disease to be present.
RECOMBINANT DNA (rDNA) is a technology that uses enzymes to cut and paste together DNA sequences of interest. The recombined DNA sequences can be placed into vehicles called vectors that ferry the DNA into a suitable host cell where it can be copied or expressed.
A REPRESSOR is a protein that turns off the expression of one or more genes. The repressor protein works by binding to the gene’s promoter region, preventing the production of messenger RNA (mRNA).
RIBONUCLEIC ACID (RNA) is a molecule similar to DNA. Unlike DNA, RNA is single-stranded. An RNA strand has a backbone made of alternating sugar (ribose) and phosphate groups. Attached to each sugar is one of four bases–adenine (A), uracil (U), cytosine (C), or guanine (G). Different types of RNA exist in the cell: messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA), and transfer RNA (tRNA). More recently, some small RNAs have been found to be involved in regulating gene expression.
RISK, in the context of genetics, refers to the probability that an individual will be affected by a particular genetic disorder. Both genes and environment influence risk. An individual’s risk may be higher because they inherit genes that cause or increase susceptibility to a disorder. Other individuals may be at higher risk because they live or work in an environment that promotes the development of the disorder.
A SEX CHROMOSOME is a type of chromosome that participates in sex determination. Humans and most other mammals have two sex chromosomes, the X and the Y. Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have both X and a Y chromosomes in their cells. Egg cells all contain an X chromosome, while sperm cells contain an X or Y chromosome. This arrangement means that it is the male that determines the sex of the offspring when fertilization occurs.
A SOMATIC CELL is any cell of the body except sperm and egg cells. Somatic cells are diploid, meaning that they contain two sets of chromosomes, one inherited from each parent. Mutations in somatic cells can affect the individual, but they are not passed on to offspring.
SUSCEPTIBILITY is a condition of the body that increases the likelihood that the individual will develop a particular disease. Susceptibility is influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
A SYNDROME is a collection of recognizable traits or abnormalities that tend to occur together and are associated with a specific disease.
A TRAIT is a specific characteristic of an organism. Traits can be determined by genes or the environment, or more commonly by interactions between them. The genetic contribution to a trait is called the genotype. The outward expression of the genotype is called the phenotype.
A TUMOR SUPPRESSOR GENE directs the production of a protein that is part of the system that regulates cell division. The tumor suppressor protein plays a role in keeping cell division in check. When mutated, a tumor suppressor gene is unable to do its job, and as a result uncontrolled cell growth may occur. This may contribute to the development of a cancer.
The X CHROMOSOME is one of two sex chromosomes. Humans and most mammals have two sex chromosomes, the X and Y. Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have X and Y chromosomes in their cells. Egg cells all contain an X chromosome, while sperm cells contain an X or a Y chromosome. This arrangement means that during fertilization, it is the male that determines the sex of the offspring.
The Y CHROMOSOME is one of two sex chromosomes. Humans and other mammals have two sex chromosomes, the X and the Y. Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have X and Y chromosomes in their cells. Egg cells contain an X chromosome, while sperm cells contain an X or a Y chromosome. This arrangement means that during fertilization, it is the male that determines the sex of the offspring.
The above terms are taken from the more than 250 common genetic terms pronounced and explained in an easy-to-understand way by leading scientists and professionals at the National Human Genome Research Institute, in The Talking Glossary. In addition to definitions, specialists in the field of genetics share their descriptions of terms, and many terms include images, animation and links to related terms. The Talking Glossary is found in its entirety at: