DNA Mutations

Recognize the impact of DNA mutations

In this outcome, we'll learn just what mutations are and how they're often connected to our DNA.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand what a mutation is and how one generally occurs
  • Understand the impact of mutations in somatic cells versus gametes
  • Identify the major types of DNA mutations


Over a lifetime, our DNA can undergo changes or mutations in the sequence of bases: A, C, G and T. This results in changes in the proteins that are made. This can be a bad or a good thing.

A mutation is a change that occurs in our DNA sequence, either due to mistakes when the DNA is copied or as the result of environmental factors such as UV light and cigarette smoke. Mutations can occur during DNA replication if errors are made and not corrected in time. Mutations can also occur as the result of exposure to environmental factors such as smoking, sunlight and radiation. Often cells can recognize any potentially mutation-causing damage and repair it before it becomes a fixed mutation.

Mutations contribute to genetic variation within species. Mutations can also be inherited, particularly if they have a positive effect. For example, the disorder sickle cell anaemia is caused by a mutation in the gene that instructs the building of a protein called hemoglobin. This causes the red blood cells to become an abnormal, rigid, sickle shape. However, in African populations, having this mutation also protects against malaria.

However, mutation can also disrupt normal gene activity and cause diseases, like cancer. Cancer is the most common human genetic disease; it is caused by mutations occurring in a number of growth-controlling genes. Sometimes faulty, cancer-causing genes can exist from birth, increasing a person’s chance of getting cancer.

An example of a point mutation. The original sequence reads TAACTGC. . . The strand with the point mutation reads TAACCGC. . . A single thymine has been turned into a cytosine. Figure 1. An illustration to show an example of a DNA mutation. Image credit: Genome Research Limited


Mutations in Somatic Cells and in Gametes

Let's begin with a question: What is a gene mutation and how do mutations occur?

A gene mutation is a permanent alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene, such that the sequence differs from what is found in most people. Mutations range in size; they can affect anywhere from a single DNA building block (base pair) to a large segment of a chromosome that includes multiple genes.

Gene mutations can be classified in two major ways:

  • Hereditary mutations are inherited from a parent and are present throughout a person’s life in virtually every cell in the body. These mutations are also called germline mutations because they are present in the parent’s egg or sperm cells, which are also called germ cells. When an egg and a sperm cell unite, the resulting fertilized egg cell receives DNA from both parents. If this DNA has a mutation, the child that grows from the fertilized egg will have the mutation in each of his or her cells.
  • Acquired (or somatic) mutations occur at some time during a person’s life and are present only in certain cells, not in every cell in the body. These changes can be caused by environmental factors such as ultraviolet radiation from the sun, or can occur if a mistake is made as DNA copies itself during cell division. Acquired mutations in somatic cells (cells other than sperm and egg cells) cannot be passed on to the next generation.


Genetic changes that are described as de novo (new) mutations can be either hereditary or somatic. In some cases, the mutation occurs in a person’s egg or sperm cell but is not present in any of the person’s other cells. In other cases, the mutation occurs in the fertilized egg shortly after the egg and sperm cells unite. (It is often impossible to tell exactly when a de novo mutation happened.) As the fertilized egg divides, each resulting cell in the growing embryo will have the mutation. De novo mutations may explain genetic disorders in which an affected child has a mutation in every cell in the body but the parents do not, and there is no family history of the disorder.

Somatic mutations that happen in a single cell early in embryonic development can lead to a situation called mosaicism. These genetic changes are not present in a parent’s egg or sperm cells, or in the fertilized egg, but happen a bit later when the embryo includes several cells. As all the cells divide during growth and development, cells that arise from the cell with the altered gene will have the mutation, while other cells will not. Depending on the mutation and how many cells are affected, mosaicism may or may not cause health problems.

Most disease-causing gene mutations are uncommon in the general population. However, other genetic changes occur more frequently. Genetic alterations that occur in more than 1 percent of the population are called polymorphisms. They are common enough to be considered a normal variation in the DNA. Polymorphisms are responsible for many of the normal differences between people such as eye color, hair color, and blood type. Although many polymorphisms have no negative effects on a person’s health, some of these variations may influence the risk of developing certain disorders.

Major Types of Mutations

Photo shows a person with mottled skin lesions that result from xermoderma pigmentosa. Figure 2. Xeroderma pigmentosa is a condition in which thymine dimerization from exposure to UV is not repaired. Exposure to sunlight results in skin lesions. (credit: James Halpern et al.)


A well-studied example of a mutation is seen in people suffering from xeroderma pigmentosa (Figure 2). Affected individuals have skin that is highly sensitive to UV rays from the sun.

When individuals are exposed to UV, pyrimidine dimers, especially those of thymine, are formed; people with xeroderma pigmentosa are not able to repair the damage. These are not repaired because of a defect in the nucleotide excision repair enzymes, whereas in normal individuals, the thymine dimers are excised and the defect is corrected. The thymine dimers distort the structure of the DNA double helix, and this may cause problems during DNA replication. People with xeroderma pigmentosa may have a higher risk of contracting skin cancer than those who don't have the condition.

Errors during DNA replication are not the only reason why mutations arise in DNA. Mutations, variations in the nucleotide sequence of a genome, can also occur because of damage to DNA. Such mutations may be of two types: induced or spontaneous. Induced mutations are those that result from an exposure to chemicals, UV rays, x-rays, or some other environmental agent. Spontaneous mutations occur without any exposure to any environmental agent; they are a result of natural reactions taking place within the body.

Mutations may have a wide range of effects. Some mutations are not expressed; these are known as silent mutations. Point mutations are those mutations that affect a single base pair. The most common nucleotide mutations are substitutions, in which one base is replaced by another. These can be of two types, either transitions or transversions. Transition substitution refers to a purine or pyrimidine being replaced by a base of the same kind; for example, a purine such as adenine may be replaced by the purine guanine. Transversion substitution refers to a purine being replaced by a pyrimidine, or vice versa; for example, cytosine, a pyrimidine, is replaced by adenine, a purine. Mutations can also be the result of the addition of a base, known as an insertion, or the removal of a base, also known as deletion. Sometimes a piece of DNA from one chromosome may get moved to another chromosome or to another region of the same chromosome; this is also known as translocation.

Mutations in repair genes have been known to cause cancer. Many mutated repair genes have been implicated in certain forms of pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, and colorectal cancer. Mutations can affect either somatic cells or germ cells. If many mutations accumulate in a somatic cell, they may lead to problems such as the uncontrolled cell division observed in cancer. If a mutation takes place in germ cells, the mutation will be passed on to the next generation, as in the case of hemophilia and xeroderma pigmentosa.

The Causes of Genetic Mutations



In Summary: DNA Mutations

DNA polymerase can make mistakes while adding nucleotides. Most mistakes are corrected, but if they are not, they may result in a mutation defined as a permanent change in the DNA sequence. Mutations can be of many types, such as substitution, deletion, insertion, and translocation. Mutations in repair genes may lead to serious consequences such as cancer. Mutations can be induced or may occur spontaneously.

Check Your Understanding

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