Human Genetic Variation
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Understanding Human Genetic Variation

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Figure 3 - Recombinant techniques have transformed the study of human genetics.

Genetics is the scientific study of inherited variation. Human genetics, then, is the scientific study of inherited human variation.

Why study human genetics? One reason is simply an interest in better understanding ourselves. As a branch of genetics, human genetics concerns itself with what most of us consider to be the most interesting species on earth: Homo sapiens. But our interest in human genetics does not stop at the boundaries of the species, for what we learn about human genetic variation and its sources and transmission inevitably contributes to our understanding of genetics in general, just as the study of variation in other species informs our understanding of our own.

A second reason for studying human genetics is its practical value for human welfare. In this sense, human genetics is more an applied science than a fundamental science. One benefit of studying human genetic variation is the discovery and description of the genetic contribution to many human diseases. This is an increasingly powerful motivation in light of our growing understanding of the contribution that genes make to the development of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. In fact, society has been willing in the past and continues to be willing to pay significant amounts of money for research in this area, primarily because of its perception that such study has enormous potential to improve human health. This perception, and its realization in the discoveries of the past 20 years, have led to a marked increase in the number of people and organizations involved in human genetics.

This second reason for studying human genetics is related to the first. The desire to develop medical practices that can alleviate the suffering associated with human disease has provided strong support to basic research. Many basic biological phenomena have been discovered and described during the course of investigations into particular disease conditions. A classic example is the knowledge about human sex chromosomes that was gained through the study of patients with sex-chromosome abnormalities. A more current example is our rapidly increasing understanding of the mechanisms that regulate cell growth and reproduction, understanding that we have gained primarily through a study of genes that, when mutated, increase the risk of cancer.

Likewise, the results of basic research inform and stimulate research into human disease. For example, the development of recombinant-DNA techniques (Figure 3) rapidly transformed the study of human genetics, ultimately allowing scientists to study the detailed structure and functions of individual human genes, as well as to manipulate these genes in a variety of previously unimaginable ways.

start of page contentA third reason for studying human genetics is that it gives us a powerful tool for understanding and describing human evolution. At one time, data from physical anthropology (including information about skin color, body build, and facial traits) were the only source of information available to scholars interested in tracing human evolutionary history. Today, however, researchers have a wealth of genetic data, including molecular data, to call upon in their work.

How Do Scientists Study Human Genetic Variation?

Two research approaches were historically important in helping investigators understand the biological basis of heredity. The first of these approaches, transmission genetics, involved crossing organisms and studying the offsprings' traits to develop hypotheses about the mechanisms of inheritance. This work demonstrated that in some organisms at least, heredity seems to follow a few definite and rather simple rules.

The second approach involved using cytologic techniques to study the machinery and processes of cellular reproduction. This approach laid a solid foundation for the more conceptual understanding of inheritance that developed as a result of transmission genetics. By the early 1900s, cytologists had demonstrated that heredity is the consequence of the genetic continuity of cells by cell division, had identified the gametes as the vehicles that transmit genetic information from one generation to another, and had collected strong evidence for the central role of the nucleus and the chromosomes in heredity.

As important as they were, the techniques of transmission genetics and cytology were not enough to help scientists understand human genetic variation at the level of detail that is now possible. The central advantage that today's molecular techniques offer is that they allow researchers to study DNA directly. Before the development of these techniques, scientists studying human genetic variation were forced to make inferences about molecular differences from the phenotypes produced by mutant genes. Furthermore, because the genes associated with most single-gene disorders are relatively rare, they could be studied in only a small number of families. Many of the traits associated with these genes are also recessive and so could not be detected in people with heterozygous genotypes. Unlike researchers working with other species, human geneticists are restricted by ethical considerations from performing experimental, "at-will" crosses on human subjects. In addition, human generations are on the order of 20 to 40 years, much too slow to be useful in classic breeding experiments. All of these limitations made identifying and studying genes in humans both tedious and slow.

In the last 50 years, however, beginning with the discovery of the structure of DNA and accelerating significantly with the development of recombinant DNA techniques in the mid-1970s, a growing battery of molecular techniques has made direct study of human DNA a reality. Key among these techniques are restriction analysis and molecular recombination, which allow researchers to cut and rejoin DNA molecules in highly specific and predictable ways; amplification techniques, such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which make it possible to make unlimited copies of any fragment of DNA; hybridization techniques, such as fluorescence in situ hybridization, which allow scientists to compare DNA samples from different sources and to locate specific base sequences within samples; and the automated sequencing techniques that today are allowing workers to sequence the human genome at an unprecedented rate.

On the immediate horizon are even more powerful techniques, techniques that scientists expect will have a formidable impact on the future of both research and clinical genetics. One such technique, DNA chip technology (also called DNA microarray technology), is a revolutionary new tool designed to identify mutations in genes or survey expression of tens of thousands of genes in one experiment.

In one application of this technology, the chip is designed to detect mutations in a particular gene. The DNA microchip consists of a small glass plate encased in plastic. It is manufactured using a process similar to the process used to make computer microchips. On its surface, it contains synthetic single-stranded DNA sequences identical to those of the normal gene and all possible mutations of that gene. To determine whether an individual possesses a mutation in the gene, a scientist first obtains a sample of DNA from the person's blood, as well as a sample of DNA that does not contain a mutation in that gene. After denaturing, or separating, the DNA samples into single strands and cutting them into smaller, more manageable fragments, the scientist labels the fragments with fluorescent dyes: the person's DNA with red dye and the normal DNA with green dye. Both sets of labeled DNA are allowed to hybridize, or bind, to the synthetic DNA on the chip. If the person does not have a mutation in the gene, both DNA samples will hybridize equivalently to the chip and the chip will appear uniformly yellow. However, if the person does possess a mutation, the mutant sequence on the chip will hybridize to the patient's sample, but not to the normal DNA, causing it (the chip) to appear red in that area. The scientist can then examine this area more closely to confirm that a mutation is present.

DNA microarray technology is also allowing scientists to investigate the activity in different cell types of thousands of genes at the same time, an advance that will help researchers determine the complex functional relationships that exist between individual genes. This type of analysis involves placing small snippets of DNA from hundreds or thousands of genes on a single microscope slide, then allowing fluorescently labeled mRNA molecules from a particular cell type to hybridize to them. By measuring the fluorescence of each spot on the slide, scientists can determine how active various genes are in that cell type. Strong fluorescence indicates that many mRNA molecules hybridized to the gene and, therefore, that the gene is very active in that cell type. Conversely, no fluorescence indicates that none of the cell's mRNA molecules hybridized to the gene and that the gene is inactive in that cell type.

Although these technologies are still relatively new and are being used primarily for research, scientists expect that one day they will have significant clinical applications. For example, DNA chip technology has the potential to significantly reduce the time and expense involved in genetic testing. This technology or others like it may one day help make it possible to define an individual's risk of developing many types of hereditary cancer as well as other common disorders, such as heart disease and diabetes. Likewise, scientists may one day be able to classify human cancers based on the patterns of gene activity in the tumor cells and then be able to design treatment strategies that are targeted directly to each specific type of cancer.

How Much Genetic Variation Exists Among Humans?

Homo sapiens is a relatively young species and has not had as much time to accumulate genetic variation as have the vast majority of species on earth, most of which predate humans by enormous expanses of time. Nonetheless, there is considerable genetic variation in our species. The human genome comprises about 3 x 109 base pairs of DNA, and the extent of human genetic variation is such that no two humans, save identical twins, ever have been or will be genetically identical. Between any two humans, the amount of genetic variation—biochemical individuality—is about 0.1 percent. This means that about one base pair out of every 1,000 will be different between any two individuals. Any two (diploid) people have about 6 x 106 base pairs that are different, an important reason for the development of automated procedures to analyze genetic variation.

The most common polymorphisms (or genetic differences) in the human genome are single base-pair differences. Scientists call these differences SNPs, for single-nucleotide polymorphisms. When two different haploid genomes are compared, SNPs occur, on average, about every 1,000 bases. Other types of polymorphisms—for example, differences in copy number, insertions, deletions, duplications, and rearrangements—also occur, but much less frequently.

Figure 4 - genetic variation between 3 different population segments
Figure 4 - Most variation occurs within populations. D

Notwithstanding the genetic differences between individuals, all humans have a great deal of their genetic information in common. These similarities help define us as a species. Furthermore, genetic variation around the world is distributed in a rather continuous manner; there are no sharp, discontinuous boundaries between human population groups. In fact, research results consistently demonstrate that about 85 percent of all human genetic variation exists within human populations, whereas about only 15 percent of variation exists between populations (Figure 4). That is, research reveals that Homo sapiens is one continuously variable, inter-breeding species. Ongoing investigation of human genetic variation has even led biologists and physical anthropologists to rethink traditional notions of human racial groups. The amount of genetic variation between these traditional classifications actually falls below the level that taxonomists use to designate subspecies, the taxonomic category for other species that corresponds to the designation of race in Homo sapiens. This finding has caused some biologists to call the validity of race as a biological construct into serious question.

Analysis of human genetic variation also confirms that humans share much of their genetic information with the rest of the natural world—an indication of the relatedness of all life by descent with modification from common ancestors. The highly conserved nature of many genetic regions across considerable evolutionary distance is especially obvious in genes related to development. For example, mutations in the patched gene produce developmental abnormalities in Drosophila, and mutations in the patched homolog in humans produce analogous structural deformities in the developing human embryo.

Geneticists have used the reality of evolutionary conservation to detect genetic variations associated with some cancers. For example, mutations in the genes responsible for repair of DNA mismatches that arise during DNA replication are associated with one form of colon cancer. These mismatched repair genes are conserved in evolutionary history all the way back to the bacterium Escherichia coli, where the genes are designated Mut l and Mut s. Geneticists suspected that this form of colon cancer was associated with a failure of mismatch repair, and they used the known sequences from the E. coli genes to probe the human genome for homologous sequences. This work led ultimately to the identification of a gene that is associated with increased risk for colon cancer.

What Is the Significance of Human Genetic Variation?

Almost all human genetic variation is relatively insignificant biologically— that is, it has no apparent adaptive significance. Some variation (for example, a neutral mutation) alters the amino acid sequence of the resulting protein but produces no detectable change in its function. Other variation (for example, a silent mutation) does not even change the amino acid sequence. Furthermore, only a small percentage of the DNA sequences in the human genome is coding sequences (sequences that are ultimately translated into protein) or regulatory sequences (sequences that can influence the level, timing, and tissue specificity of gene expression). Differences that occur elsewhere in the DNA—in the vast majority of the DNA that has no known function—have no impact.

Some genetic variation, however, can be positive, providing an advantage in changing environments.

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