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What is a trisomy?

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Canto: So I happened to watch an excellent video from the Royal Institute recently, a talk by the beautifully named and beautifully voiced Irish geneticist, Aoife Mclysaght…

Jacinta: How do you pronounce that?

Canto: It’s pronounced Aoife Mclysaght…

Jacinta: Oh right.

Canto: So the theme was that everything in biology makes sense only in the light of evolution, and she was illustrating this through her area of interest and research, gene duplication. And along the way she talked about trisomies, particularly trisomy 21, usually referred to as Down Syndome.

Jacinta: A trisomy involves having an extra copy of a chromosome, in this case chromosome 21.

Canto: Very good, and the extra copy is a perfectly good copy, but having that extra copy causes major problems, obviously.

Jacinta: The term ‘trisomy’ refers of course to three – having three rather than two sets of a particular chromosome. Humans normally have two sets of 23 chromosomes. I have a relative who has a rare and unnamed form of trisomy, or at least a rare form of chromosomal disorder, which, when looking into it, I decided must be a trisomy. But since then I’ve discovered that Williams syndrome – which I learned about from another person I know with that condition – isn’t a trisomy, but the result of genes missing from chromosome 7. So now I’ve gone from thinking that trisomies accounted for all or most sorts of genetic intellectual disabilities to… I don’t know.

Canto: To a position of deeper ignorance. So people with trisomies have 47 chromosomes, with Down syndrome being the most common. Others include Edward syndrome (trisomy 18) and Patau syndrome (trisomy 13). Interestingly, though, there’s another rarer form of Down syndrome that’s due to translocation – that’s when a part of a chromosome – in this case chromosome 21 – migrates to another chromosome, usually chromosome 14, during cell division

Jacinta: That complicates matters… So do we know what causes these trisomies, and these translocations? They seem to be very specific, occurring for only particular chromosomes, or bits of them.

Canto: Well you’re right in that trisomies 21, 18 and 13 are relatively common – I mean rare but more common than a trisomy 9 or 15 or 19, just to pick out any numbers less than 23. We do know that trisomies become more common with older egg cells. As you know, your egg cells are as old as you are, and they become a little decrepit with age like yourself.

Jacinta: We’re both slouching to oblivion.

Canto: It’s also the case that most trisomies don’t survive to term, in fact they mostly miscarry so early that the mother doesn’t even know she’s been pregnant. So presumably those trisomies I just picked at random, if they occur at all, have more fatal consequences. It seems in any case that a trisomy occurs when cells divide but one chromosome somehow sticks to its homologue and is carried with it into the new cell. So maybe some chromosomes are more ‘sticky’ than others?

Jacinta: I think we need to do a deeper dive, as one pundit likes to say, into meiosis and aneuploidy.

Canto: Aneuploidy?

Jacinta: That’s just when you have an abnormal number of chromosomes per cell: it could be less or more. Actually trisomy 16 is the most common form, but fatal in its full-blown version. It can exist in mosaic form – when not all the cells have it.

Canto: So can you explain meiosis for us?

Jacinta: A long story but fascinating of course. It’s the basis of sexual reproduction for all eukaryotes. So before eukaryotic germ cells or gametes divide they need to replicate their chromosomes so that the resulting pair of cells has an equal share. This period of replication is known as the S phase.

Canto: Wait a minute, does this mean that in the S phase humans have 92 chromosomes per cell instead of 46?

Jacinta: Don’t bog me down with clever questions. Taking another step back, we have this whole process called the cell cycle, which we divide into phases. We can start anywhere, since it’s a cycle, if you know what I mean, but if you need a beginning it’s the prophase. Anyway, the S phase comes after the G1 phase and before the G2 phase. S, by the way, stands for synthesis, and G here stands for gap. Together these three phases make up the interphase, at the end of which we have the prophase of a new cell cycle, though actually meiosis isn’t a cycle the way mitosis (non-sexual reproduction or cell division) is. To be accurate, the next phase is called prophase 1, which is followed by metaphase 1, anaphase 1 and telophase 1 before we have prophase 2….

Canto: Stop cycling I’m getting dizzy.

Jacinta: Well yes believe me it’s complicated, and I haven’t begun yet. But you did ask for it.

Canto: Can you give the simplified version?

Jacinta: Not really.

Canto: Okay, we’ll leave that for another day. Focusing in on the part of meiosis when these trisomies and other anomalies occur, it seems that the problem isn’t so much stickiness as non-stickiness. Think of gametes. In mammals such as humans there are two types, egg and sperm cells. They’re differentiated by their sex chromosomes, chromosome 23…

Jacinta: And also by the fact that the egg cell is like the sun and the sperm cell is like the earth.

Canto: Well, sort of, in terms of volume. Now, after meiosis – which occurs in phases, meiosis 1 and meiosis 2, creating two daughter cells then four grand-daughter cells, so to speak – each of these grand-daughter gametes should be haploid. That’s to say, they should contain only one of each of the 23 chromosomes. But nothing’s perfect and sometimes there are errors, and we’re not clear about why, though the chances of error rise with the age of the female as mentioned before. Mostly the problem is that the chromosomes didn’t properly separate, a state called chromosome nondisjunction. Something to do with the spindle apparatus not functioning properly due to a lack of cohesion of the chromosome. This occurs rather more frequently in female meiosis, or oogenesis, than in male meiosis, or spermatogenesis, they’re not sure exactly why.

chromosome_nondisjunction_meiosis

Jacinta: Well I must say that’s all very enlightening, and salutary, as it’s made me aware of how little I know about genetics in general. Now I know a teensy bit more. As to trisomies and other such chromosomal problems, what they know just makes me keen to know more about how we might detect them and possibly in the deep future rectify them at source. But the science is clearly a long way from that…

Canto: Well you never know. Genetics is a fast-moving field.

Jacinta: we must explore it more. It’s serious fun.

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Written by stewart henderson

January 31, 2016 at 10:06 pm

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