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exploring meiosis

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Canto: So I’m trying to get my head around meiosis in general, and how the parental chromosomes get assorted in the process. I understand that Mendel arrived at his law or principle of independent assortment by noting the resultant phenotypes from particular crosses, especially dihybrid crosses. He knew nothing about gametes and meiosis, an understanding of which didn’t get underway until a decade or more after his 1865 experiments…

Jacinta: Well, meiosis is a v v amazing process that deserves lots of attention, because if not for, etc….

Canto: But what is meiosis for, I don’t even understand that.

Jacinta: It’s for the production of gametes – the sperm and egg cells in mammals. And that’s interesting, because, according to Medical News Today, ‘Females are born with all the eggs they will ever have in their lifetime. The amount decreases until a person stops ovulating and reaches menopause’. According to a graph they present, the number of egg cells produced is at its peak long before birth, and has reduced about tenfold by the time of birth, to about one or two million. This number continues to reduce through life, though it remains relatively stable during the period of ‘optimum fertility’ from about ages 18 to 31, when the number of eggs is around 200,000, with a lot of individual variation.

Canto: So, meiosis occurs entirely while the infant is in the womb? For females at least. And what exactly is ovulation?

Jacinta: Yes, egg cells don’t regenerate like other cells. Remember, tens of billions of our somatic cells die every day, and are being replaced – mostly. As to ovulation, this occurs as part of the menstrual cycle, which occurs with females at puberty. During menstruation, mature eggs are released from the ovaries, which are on the left and right sides of the uterus and connected to it by the fallopian tubes.

Canto: What do you mean by mature eggs? Aren’t they always mature?

Jacinta: Hmmm. Detour after detour. Four phases are recognised in the menstrual cycle – menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. It’s the follicular phase that produces mature eggs, through the release of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) by the pituitary gland. Do you want me to go into detail?

Canto: No, let’s get back to meiosis – but I always knew there was something fshy about the menstrual cycle. So meiosis is about haploid cells producing more haploid cells? You mentioned that egg cells, which are haploid cells, are at their peak long before the birth of a female child, a peak of around 10 million. But where does the first haploid cell come from, when a child starts as one fertilised egg – a diploid cell? Haploid cells combining to form diploid cells is one amazing process, but diploid cells separating to form haploid cells?

Jacinta: Okay so here’s what I think is happening. A human being starts as a diploid cell, a fertilised egg. As cells differentiate, which happens quite early, some become germ cells. But they’re diploid cells, like all the others, not haploid cells. So meiosis starts with diploid cells.

Canto: Okay, so what differentiates a germ cell from other somatic diploid cells?

Jacinta: I don’t know, just as I don’t know what makes a pluripotent or totipotent cell become a brain cell or a blood cell or whatever. This presumably has a lot to do with genetics, epigenetics and the production of endless varieties of proteins that make stuff, including germ cells. Which presumably are not egg cells or sperm cells, which are haploid cells, or gametes. And these germ cells can undergo mitosis, to reproduce themselves, or meiosis, to produce gametes. So now, at last, we describe the process, and much of this comes from Khan Academy. There are two ’rounds’ of meiosis – M1 and M2 – each of which has a number of phases. In M1 the diploid cell is split into two haploid cells each with 23 chromosomes, and in M2 the haploid cells reproduce as haploid cells, so that at the end of the cycle you have four haploid cells. And in each of these ’rounds’ there are the four phases, prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase. PMAT is how to remember it. And then there’s interphase, where cells just going on being themselves and doing whatever they do – though it’s important to know what happens during interphase for these other stages.

Canto: The complexity of it all is fairly mind blowing. Molecules that have a code for making proteins that perform all these functions that produce a huge variety of cells every one of which – apart from the gametes – has a nucleus containing 23 chromosomes from your mother and 23 from your father. Trillions of them!

Jacinta: Yes, it’s certainly amazing – and billions of those cells die and are replaced every day. And not just in humans but in dogs and bonobos and cetaceans and whatnot.

Canto: But here’s a thing – we’re talking about gametes, also known as germ cells, which may be female or male – sperm cells or egg cells. But sperm are also known as spermatazoa, and they’re much tinier and less complex than egg cells, and also far more numerous. Is a spermatozoon a sperm cell, or do lots of spermatozoa live in one cell, or what? One ejaculation releases – how many of these tiddlers?

Jacinta: Well sperm counts can range from about 15 million or less per millilitre of semen (that’s a low sperm count) to somewhere between 200 and 300 million. An ejaculation can vary in volume of course – generally about a teaspoon, which might be as much as 5mls. And, yes, a single sperm or spermatozoon is a male gamete, much smaller than the female ovum. So, yes, male sperm, like male political leaders, make up in numbers for what they lack in complexity.

Canto: Okay so let’s get started with PMAT and all that.

Jacinta: Well it’s all very miraculous or mind-blowing as Salman Khan rightly emphasises – to think that this complexity comes from mindless molecules and all. But here goes, and it cannot help but be a simplified description. So we start with a germ cell – and I’m not sure how this particular type of diploid cell is distinguished from other diploid cells…

Canto: Or whether, even though it’s called a germ cell, it is essentially different in male bodies as compared to female bodies, since they produce such different gametes…

Jacinta: Yeah well I’ll keep that in mind as we progress. Now we start with the interphase, during which time the chromosomes in the nucleus are synthesised. Interphase is generally subdivided into three phases, Gap 1 (G1), Synthesis (S) and Gap 2 (G2). The cell itself experiences a lot of growth during interphase.

Canto: Too vague.

Jacinta: Well I’m just getting started, but I’m not writing a book here.

Canto: Are you going to explain how the chromosomes are ‘synthesised’?

Jacinta: Probably not, this is just a summary.

Canto: I want to know about chromosome synthesis.

Jacinta: Sigh. You’re right, it sounds pretty important doesn’t it. So let’s focus in detail on interphase, which I think is much the same whether we’re looking at mitosis or meiosis.  If you consider a whole cell cycle, from its ‘birth’ – usually through mitosis – to its ‘death’ (through mitosis again? I’m not sure), 95% of its time is spent in interphase, during which it doubles in size. It is, in a sense, preparing itself for chromosomal replication and cell division. Here’s a quote from a text book, Concepts of Biology, which I found online, describing the first stage of interphase:

The first stage of interphase is called the G1 phase, or first gap, because little change is visible. However, during the G1 stage, the cell is quite active at the biochemical level. The cell is accumulating the building blocks of chromosomal DNA and the associated proteins, as well as accumulating enough energy reserves to complete the task of replicating each chromosome in the nucleus.

Canto: So it’s a clever cell, actively accumulating the material to build and replicate its particular and unique DNA – I mean unique to the particular soma that it somatically serves, along with several trillion others.

Jacinta: Actually, another source tells that the G stands for growth, which I think makes more sense. The next stage is the S or synthesis phase. Now at this stage, or the beginning of it, the chromosomes exist largely as chromatin, a kind of mixture of DNA and proteins. Histones, in particular are important proteins for packaging the DNA into a tight enough space to fit in the nucleus. I mean, 23 pairs of chromosomes doesn’t really tell you how much DNA and other molecules it all amounts to. Now, this S phase is really complicated, and summaries don’t do it justice. Here’s a quote from yet another source to kick things off:

The S phase of a cell cycle occurs during interphase, before mitosis or meiosis, and is responsible for the synthesis or replication of DNA. In this way, the genetic material of a cell is doubled before it enters mitosis or meiosis, allowing there to be enough DNA to be split into daughter cells. The S phase only begins when the cell has passed the G1 checkpoint and has grown enough to contain double the DNA. S phase is halted by a protein called p16 until this happens.

So you’re asking how these chromosomes are synthesised. Note how this says ‘synthesis or replication’, so it’s presumably about the same sort of process that occurs when cells and their chromosomes are replicated during mitosis? Here’s another passage from the same source, and I don’t pretend to understand it:

The most important event occurring in S phase is the replication of DNA. The aim of this process is to produce double the amount of DNA, providing the basis for the chromosome sets of the daughter cells. DNA replication begins at a point where regulatory pre-replication complexes are attached to the DNA in the G1 phase. These complexes act as a signal for where DNA replication should start. They are removed in the S phase before replication begins so that DNA replication doesn’t occur more than once.

Canto: Wow. That explains not much. Obviously the key to it all is the ‘regulatory pre-replication complexes’ previously attached. How could I not have known that?

Jacinta: Well let’s just say that there are known mechanisms by which DNA replication is regulated, and prevented from occurring more than once in the S phase. I’m sure all those ‘pre-replication complexes’ have been named and studied in detail by scores of geneticists. So that’s enough for now about chromosome synthesis/replication. The S phase also involves continued cell growth and the production of more proteins and enzymes for DNA synthesis. Always looking to the future. And so we move to the next phase.

Canto: Ah yes, reading ahead I see that DNA synthesis is always much the same. The DNA double helix is kind of unzipped by an enzyme called helicase, and the two single strands can be used as templates to form new and identical double strands. I’m over-simplifying of course.

Jacinta: Yes there are different processes going on to ensure that everything goes more or less smoothly, as well as to maintain cell growth outside of the genetic material. A key enzyme, DNA polymerase, binds nucleotides to the template strands using the base pairing code – A binds to T, C to G. This creates an identical new double helix of DNA.

Canto: Apparently there’s a difference between DNA replication and chromosome replication. Please explain?

Jacinta: I’m not sure if I can, but we’re talking about the replication of chromosomes in the S phase, after which each chromosome now consists of two sister chromatids (halves of a chromosome), as you see below.

 

In the first circle, A and B are homologous pairs. That’s to say, they’re segments of DNA, chromosomes, from each parent, though they might code differently – they might be different alleles. This is a bit complicated. Sal Khan in his video puts it this way:

Homologous pairs means that they’re not identical chromosomes, but they do code for the same genes. They might have different versions, or different alleles for a gene or for a certain trait, but they code essentially for the same kind of stuff.

Make of that what you will. I suppose it means that the homologous pair might have, say, genes for eye colour, but mum’s will code for blue, dad’s for brown. But the same kinds of genes are paired. Anyway, after replication in the S phase, you get, as above, two male and two female chromosomes, joined together in a sort of x shape. They’re joined together at that circular sort of binding site called a centromere (it’s not actually circular). The images above are misleading though, in that there are short arms and long arms leading off the centromere. You could say the centromere is off-centre. So the whole of this new x-shaped thingy is called a chromosome and each half – the right and the left – is called a chromatid. And at the four ends of the x-shaped thingy – I mean the chromosome – is a cap of repetitive DNA called a telomere.

Canto: Ah yes, I’ve heard of those and their relation to ageing…

Jacinta: Let’s not be diverted. So all of this is occurring in the nucleus, and there’s also replication of the centrosomes. Okay they’re a new structure I’m introducing, one that seems to only occur in animal-type or metazoan eukaryotic cells. They serve as microtubule organising centres (MTOCs), according to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, and which goes into great detail on the structure of these centrosomes, but for now the key is that they’re essential to the future separation of the chromatids via microtubules during prophase I. And that’s the next phase to describe. And it’s worth noting that the developments described up to now could be preliminary to meiosis or mitosis.
So, in prophase I the nuclear envelope starts to disintegrate and the pair of centrosomes are somehow pushed apart, to opposite sides of the chromosomal material, and microtubule spindles start extending from them – presumably by the magic of proteins. And another sort of magical thing happens, though I’m sure that some geneticists understand the detail of it all, which is that the homologous pairs line up on opposite sides of a kind of equator line, guided by these spindles, forming a tetrad, and this is where a process called crossing over or recombination occurs, in which the pairs exchange sections of genes. And this recombination somehow manages to avoid duplication and to maintain viability, and indeed to increase diversity. The recombination occurs at points in the chromosomes called chiasmas.
So that’s the end of prophase I. Now to metaphase 1. In this phase the nucleus has disappeared, the centromeres have completed their move to the opposite sides of the cell, and the spindle fibres of microtubules become attached to chromosomes via the kinetochores – protein structures connected to the centromeres. Here’s an interesting and useful illustration of a kinetochore.

All of this is similar to metaphase in mitosis. Then in anaphase I the homologous pairs, which remember had come together and recombined, are separated, or pulled apart, which is different from anaphase I in mitosis, where the chromosomes are split into their separate chromatids. Next comes telophase I, when the separation is complete, the facilitating microtubules break down and cytokinesis, the final separation of the chromosomes and the cytoplasm into two distinct cells, occurs. Telophase I ends with two cells and two nuclei, each containing 23 chromosomes, half of those in the original cells. They’re called daughter cells, for some reason.

Canto: Probably because son cells sounds silly.

Jacinta: Good point. So now these daughter cells start on a whole new PMAT process, which is a lot more like mitosis. Prophase II involves the disintegration of the nucleus once more, the two centrosomes start to move apart as microtubules are formed – and remember this is happening simultaneously in the two daughter cells – and then we’re into metaphase II, where the centrosomes have migrated to opposite ends of the cell, and the chromosomes line up at the ‘equator’, and the spindle fibres attach to the kinetochores of the sister chromatids. Next comes anaphase II, in which the spindle fibres draw the chromatids away from each other, as in anaphase during mitosis. And at the end of this journey they’re now treated as sister chromosomes. And all of this is happening in those two daughter cells, which start to stretch and cleave, which of course means that, in telophase II, you have cytokinesis, and the creation of new nuclear membranes, and the cytoplasm – remember that all the cytoplasm and its organelles have to be replicated too, to make, in the end four, complete haploid cells, or gametes. So that’s the potted version. There’s lots of stuff I’ve excluded, like the difference between centrosomes and centrioles, and lots of details about the cytoplasm, and there’s no doubt much more to learn (by me at least) about the crossing over that’s so essential to provide the variation that Darwin searched for in vain. Anyway, that was sort of fun and thank dog for the internet.

Canto: But I’m still confused about sperm cells and egg cells… If sperm cells are just those little tadpole things – a bunch of DNA with a flagellum, they don’t have any cytoplasm to speak of, do they?

Jacinta: Ah yes, something to look into. There’s spermatogenesis and there’s oogenesis… for a future post. It just never ends.

References

https://www.thoughtco.com/stages-of-meiosis-373512

https://www.albert.io/blog/what-occurs-in-the-s-phase/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrosome
https://www.thoughtco.com/kinetochore-definition-373543
https://opentextbc.ca/biology/chapter/6-2-the-cell-cycle/
https://www2.nau.edu/lrm22/lessons/mitosis_notes/meiosis.html
https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Chromatin
https://sciencing.com/difference-between-centriole-centrosome-13002.html

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2022 at 10:25 pm

reading matters 7

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She has her mother’s laugh, by Carl Zimmer , science author and journalist, blogger, New York Times columnist, etc etc

content hints – inheritance and heredity, genetics and epigenetics, Darwin and Galton, the Hapsburg jaw, eugenics, Hugo de Vries, Theodor Boveri, Luther Burbank, Pearl and Carol Buck, Henry Goddard, The Kallikak Family, Hitler’s racial hygiene laws, morons, the five races etc, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Emma Wolverton, PKU, chromosomal shuffling, meiosis, cultural inheritance, mitochondrial DNA, Mendel’s Law, August Weismann, germ and soma, twin studies, genetic predispositions, mongrels, Neanderthals, chimeras, exosomes, the Yandruwandha people, IVF, genomic engineering, Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, ooplasm transfers, rogue experiments, gene drives, pluripotency, ethical battlegrounds.

Written by stewart henderson

July 28, 2020 at 12:22 pm

Pinning down meiosis: sperm, mainly

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the reassortment of DNA during meiosis 1

Canto: Not very long ago I was reading Carl Zimmer’s book She has her mother’s laugh, and he was explaining meiosis. It was exciting, because I think I understood it. Being a regular science reader I’d read about meiosis and mitosis before but I could never remember, or perhaps I never clearly knew, the difference. But this time was different, and I thought ‘Yes!’, or maybe ‘Eureka!’ sounds better, because not only did I get it, or thought I did, but I thought ‘this is a new weapon against those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. There’s a fellow-teacher at my college who actually says this, but I’ve never really confronted her on it, apart from some mutterings.

Jacinta: So please explain yourself. Meiosis and mitosis are about cell division aren’t they?

Canto: Well I can’t explain myself, but at the time I thought ‘here’a new one-word response to those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. The other one-word responses being ‘genes’, ‘genetics’, ‘genomics’ and other variants. Well okay, I can give a partial explanation. Most everyone believes in evolution, that’s why they use smart phones rather than the earlier types of mobile phones or landlines or whatever. That’s why they use dishwashers and modern washing machines and modern computers, and drive modern cars instead of a horse-and-carriage, because evolution just means progressive development. What my fellow-teacher really should be saying is she doesn’t believe in the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection from random variation, but she doesn’t say that because I strongly suspect she doesn’t have a clue what that means.

Jacinta: Right, so she doesn’t believe in the particular theory…

Canto: Which is proven by genes, the essential mechanism of random variation, which of course Darwin was completely unaware of. And by meiosis, another essential source of variety.

Jacinta: So, meiosis. It’s quite complex. Zimmer gives a brief explanation as you say, and there’s also a number of videos, from Khan Academy, Crash Course Biology and others, so let’s try to describe it for ourselves, with emphasis on variety or variation, which is the essential thing.

Canto: Mitosis, and hopefully I now will never forget this, is the cell division and replication that goes on in our bodies at every moment, and which enables us to grow from a foetus to a strapping lad or lassie, to heal wounds and even to have multiple times more neurons than old fatty Frump, maybe. It occurs among the somatic cells, and it essentially does it by replicating cells exactly, like replacing or adding to like.

Jacinta: But not exactly, otherwise we’d just be a growing blob of undifferentiated body cells, not liver, brain, blood, skin and other cells. That takes epigenetics, as I recall. Mitotically-created cells are identical as to chromosomes, but not as to expression. But anyway, meiosis. That’s how our germ cells are replicated.

Canto: Egg and sperm cells, together known as gametes. Khan Academy begins its article on meiosis with this:

meiosis in humans is a division process that takes us from a diploid cell—one with two sets of chromosomes—to haploid cells—ones with a single set of chromosomes. In humans, the haploid cells made in meiosis are sperm and eggs. When a sperm and an egg join in fertilization, the two haploid sets of chromosomes form a complete diploid set: a new genome.

All fine, though this division process is damn complicated as we’ll discover. But what interested me in Zimmer’s account was this, and I’ll quote it at length, because it’s what got me excited about variation:

In men, meiosis takes place within a labyrinth of tubes coiled within the testicles. The tube walls are lined with sperm precursor cells, each carrying two copies of each chromosome, one from the man’s mother, the other from his father. When these cells divide, they copy all their DNA, so that now they have four copies of each chromosome. Rather than drawing apart from each other, however, the chromosomes stay together. A maternal and paternal copy of each chromosome line up alongside each other. Proteins descend on them and slice the chromosomes, making cuts at precisely the same spots.

As the cells repair these self inflicted wounds, a remarkable exchange can take place. A piece of DNA from one chromosome may get moved to the same position in the other, its own place taken by its counterpart. This molecular surgery cannot be rushed. All told, a cell may need three weeks to finish meiosis. Once it’s done, its chromosomes pull away from each other. The cell then divides twice, to make four new sperm cells. Each of the four cells inherits a single copy of all 23 chromosomes. But each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Think of this last line – each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Jacinta: Yes, and there can be up to a billion sperm cells released in each ejaculate, but who’s counting? And are they all different?

Canto: Apparently so. Even the Daily Mail says so, so it must be true. And when you think of it, if there weren’t differences, each offspring born from that man’s sperm would be a clone…

Jacinta: Not necessarily – what about the egg cells?

Canto: Yes, I believe it’s the same meiosis process with them, though not quite. Anyway, there’s the same mixing of chromosomes, so the chances of any two egg cells, or I should say their chromosomal complement, being identical is extremely small.

Jacinta: So, meiosis – I’ve been trying to pin it all down, but I don’t feel I’ve succeeded. Here goes, anyway. Meiosis is a special type of reproduction, confined only to our germ cells, the sperm and egg cells. The gametes. The haploid cells. As opposed to the diploid cells which make up all the somatic or body cells we have. That’s to say, those cells reproduce differently from diploid, somatic cells. But before I try to explain the complex process of their reproduction, what about their production? Where do these haploid cells come from? Now I might answer glibly that the egg cells, also called oocytes, come from the ovaries, and the spermatozoa come from the testes, but that’s not really my question.

Canto: In fact I’m not even sure if you’ve got it right so far. The egg cell is called an ovum. An oocyte is a precursor egg cell I think. I’m not sure if it matters much, but we’re looking at the production of these gametes. Presumably the kinds of gametes we produce depends on our gender, which is determined at conception? Of course, in these gender-bending days, who knows.

Jacinta: Oh dear. Let’s try not to get confused. Assume an embryo or foetus is straightforwardly male or female, or potentially so. I seem to recall that males only start producing sperm at puberty, whereas females produce all their egg cells before that, and only have a fixed number, and egg cells are quite huge in comparison to sperm, and even compared to your average somatic cells – though some neurons have super-long axons. When females reach the stage of menstruation, that’s when they start releasing eggs.

Canto: Okay in the above quote from Zimmer, sperm precursor cells are mentioned. They’re also called spermatocytes, and the labyrinth of coiled tubes he also mentions are the seminiferous tubules. This is where the meiosis happens, in males. There are two types of spermatocyte, primary and secondary. The primary spermatocytes are diploid, and the secondary, formed after the first meiosis process (meiosis 1), are haploid.

Jacinta: To possibly confuse matters further, there’s a multi-stage process happening in those seminiferous tubules, a process called spermatogenesis. It starts with the spermatogonia (and maybe we’ll leave the spermatogonium’s existence for another post), which are processed into primary spermatocytes, then into secondary spermatocytes, then into spermatids, then to sperm.

Canto: Yes, so the first step you mention is mitotic, with diploid cells creating diploid cells, the primary spermatocytes…

Jacinta: And mitosis has those four steps or phases – PMAT, as students recall it; prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase, while meiosis has the same but in two parts, PMAT for meiosis 1 and PMAT for meiosis 2. So as we’ve already pointed out, this double-doubling process has a final result of four new cells. Now, before meiosis 1, the cells go through interphase, but I won’t detail that here. In prophase 1, chromosomes are brought together in pairs, called homologues. Their alleles are aligned together, but then this more or less random ‘crossing over’ occurs, presumably with the aid of some busy little proteins, which mixes the chromosomes up. Each homologue pair can have many of these crossovers. More mixing happens during metaphase 1, when homologue pairs, with their crossings-over, line up randomly at the metaphase plate. I’m not pretending to fully understand all this, but the main point is that the variety we find in the final product, the sperm cells, is brought about essentially during prophase and metaphase in meiosis 1 of the double cycle.

Canto: It does get me more interested in understanding meiosis more fundamentally though, as well as mitosis. The phases and the processes that bring them about, the proteins, the chromatin, the centromeres, the metaphase plate, and of course oogenesis, polar bodies and much much more.

Jacinta: Yes – I think meiosis does point to a lot of the variation in the world of organisms, but it would be hard to get those who ‘don’t believe in evolution’ to think about this and its relevance. They tend not to listen to explanations or to want to make connections.

Canto: You can give up on them or keep plugging away with the ‘what about this?’ or ‘can you explain that?’ Or demonstrate to them directly or indirectly, the results of those powerful explanations, in medicine, in astronomy, in our technology, and in our human relations.

References

She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, by Carl Zimmer, 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiosis

https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/cellular-molecular-biology/meiosis/a/phases-of-meiosis

https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-meiosis#:~:text=Meiosis%20is%20a%20process%20where,to%20form%20four%20daughter%20cells.

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 9:18 pm

a DNA dialogue 6: Okazaki fragments, as promised

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Canto: Okay, so first off, why are Okazaki fragments so called?

Jacinta: Well as anyone would guess, they’re named after someone Japanese, in this case two, the husband and wife team Reiji and Tsuneko Okazaki, who discovered these short, discontinuously synthesised stretches of DNA nucleotides in the 1960s.

Canto: Yes their story is intriguing – tragic but also inspiring. Reiji, the husband, was born in Hiroshima and died in 1975 from leukaemia, related to the 1945 A-bomb. He was only 44. Tsuneko Okazaki continued their research and went on to make many other contributions to genetics and molecular biology, as a professor, teacher, mentor and director of scientific institutes. Her achievements would surely make her a Nobel candidate, and she’s still alive, so maybe…

Jacinta: Now the key to Okazaki fragments is this lagging strand. Its directionality means that the DNA primase, followed by the DNA polymerase, must work ‘backwards’, away from the replication fork, to add nucleotides. This means that that they have to have periodic breaks – but I’m not sure exactly why – in creating this lagging strand. So the entire replication process is described as semi-discontinuous because of this fundamental difference between the continuously created leading strand and the stop-start ‘fragmentary’ (at least briefly) lagging strand.

Canto: But we need to know why this ‘backward’ movement has to be stop-start, and I’d also like to know more about this primase and polymerase, thank you.  

Jacinta: Well the Okazakis and their team discovered this semi-discontinuous replication process in studying the replication of good old Escherichia coli, the go-to research bacterium, and it was a surprise at the time. Now, I’m looking at the explanation for this necessarily discontinuous process in Wikipedia, and I confess I don’t really understand it, but I’ll give it a go. Apparently the Okazakis ‘suggested that there is no found mechanism that showed continuous replication in the 3′ to 5′ direction, only 5′ to 3′ using DNA polymerase, a replication enzyme’, to quote from Wikipedia. So they were rather cleverly hypothesising that there must be another mechanism for the 3′ to 5′ lagging strand, which must be discontinuous. 

Canto: And another way of saying that, is that the process must be fragmentary. And they used experiments to test this hypothesis? 

Jacinta: Correct, and I won’t go into the process of testing, as if I could. It involved pulse-labelling. Don’t ask, but it has something to do with radioactivity. Anyway, the test was successful, and was supported by the discovery shortly afterwards of polynucleotide ligase, the enzyme that stitches these fragments together. Now, you want to know more about primase, polymerase, and now ligase no doubt. So here’s a bit of the low-down. DNA primase is, to confuse you, an RNA polymerase, which synthesises RNA from a DNA template. It’s a catalyst in the synthesis of a short RNA segment, known as a primer. It’s extremely important in DNA replication, because no polymerase (and you know how polymerase keeps getting associated with primase) can make anything happen without an RNA (or DNA) primer.

Canto: But why? This is getting so complicated.

Jacinta: I assure you, we’ve barely scratched the surface….

Canto: Well, Socrates was right – there’s an essential wisdom in being aware of how ignorant you are. We’ll battle on in our small way.    

 

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2020 at 5:48 pm

a DNA dialogue 5: a first look at DNA replication

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schematic of ‘replisome’ structures involved in DNA replication

 

Jacinta: So let’s scratch some more of the surface of the subject of DNA and genetics. A useful datum to remember, the human genome consists of more than 3 billion DNA bases. We were talking last time about pyrimidines and purines, and base pairs. Let’s talk now about how DNA unzips.

Canto: Well the base pairs are connected by hydrogen bonds, and the two DNA strands, the backbones of the molecule, run in opposite, or anti-parallel, directions, from the 5′ (five prime) end to the 3′ (three prime) end. So, while one strand runs from 5′ to 3′ (the sense strand), the other runs 3′ to 5′ (the antisense strand). 

Jacinta: Right, so what we’re talking about here is DNA replication, which involves breaking those hydrogen bonds, among other things. 

Canto: Yes, so that backbone, or double backbone whatever, where the strands run anti-parallel, is a phosphate-sugar construction, and the sugar is deoxyribose, a five-carbon sugar. This sugar is oriented in one strand from 5′ to 3′, that’s to say the 5′ carbon connects to a phosphate group at one end, while the 3′ carbon connects to a phosphate group at the other end, while in the other strand the sugar is oriented in the opposite direction. 

Jacinta: Yes, and this is essential for replication. The protein called DNA polymerase should be introduced here, with thanks to Khan Academy. It adds nucleotides to the 3′ end to grow a DNA strand…

Canto: Yes, but I think that’s part of the zipping process rather than the unzipping… it’s all very complicated but we need to keep working on it…

Jacinta: Yes, according to Khan Academy, the first step in this replication is to unwind the tightly wound double helix, which occurs through the action of an enzyme called topoisomerase. We could probably do a heap of posts on each of these enzymes, and then some. Anyway, to over-simplify, topoisomerase acts on the DNA such that the hydrogen bonds between the nitrogenous bases can be broken by another enzyme called helicase.

Canto: And that’s when we get to add nucleotides. So we have the two split strands, one of which is a 3′ strand, now called the leading strand, the other a 5′ strand, called the lagging strand. Don’t ask.

Jacinta: The leading strand is the one you add nucleotides to, creating another strand going in the 5′ to 3′ direction. This apparently requires an RNA primer. Don’t ask. DNA primase provides this RNA primer, and once this has occurred, DNA polymerase can start adding nucleotides to the 3′ end, following the open zipper, so to speak.

Canto: The lagging strand is a bit more complex though, as you apparently can’t add nucleotides in that other direction, the 5′ direction, not with any polymerase no how. So, according to Khan, ‘biology’ adds primers (don’t ask) made up of several RNA nucleotides.

Jacinta: Again, according to Khan, the DNA primase, which works along the single strand, is responsible for adding these primers to the lagging strand so that the polymerase can work ‘backwards’ along that strand, adding nucleotides in the right, 3′, direction. So it’s called the lagging strand because it has to work through this more long, drawn-out process.

Canto: Yes, and apparently, this means that you have all these fragments of DNA, called Okazaki fragments. I’m not sure how that works…

Jacinta: Let’s devote our next post on this subject entirely to Okazaki fragments. That could clarify a lot. Or not.

Canto: Okay, let’s. Goody goody gumdrops. In any case, these fragments can be kind of sewn together using DNA ligase, presumably another miraculous enzyme. And the RNA becomes DNA. Don’t ask. I’m sure all will be revealed with further research and investigation.

References

Leading and lagging strands in DNA replication (Khan Academy video)

https://www.quora.com/What-is-DNA-unzipping

https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-dna-replication

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2020 at 10:59 pm

Epigenetics 8: some terms

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Histone, with DNA wrapping, rendered by the Protein Data Bank (PDB)
Histone, with DNA wrapping, rendered by the Protein Data Bank (PDB)

 

The gene is not more ‘basic’ than the organism, or closer to ‘the essence of life’, whatever that means. Organisms have DNA codes, and they maintain external forms and behaviours. Both are equal and fundamental components of being. DNA does not even build an organism directly, but must work through complex internal environments of embryological development, and external environments of surrounding conditions. We will not know the core and essence of humanity when we complete the human genome project. 

Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Magnolias from Moscow’, in Dinosaur in a Haystack, 1996

I remember ages ago promising that I’d start every blog piece with a quote, then I more or less immediately forgot about it. Anyway the above quote kind of refers to epigenetics, and anticipates, in a way, the disappointment that many have felt about the human genome project and its not-quite-revelatory nature. As we learn more about the complexities of epigenetics, more about the relationships between genotype and phenotype will be revealed, but the process will surely be very gradual, though relentless. But I can’t talk, knowing so little. In this post, I’ll look at a very few key terms to help orient myself in this vast field. Not all will be specifically related to epigenetics, but to the whole field of DNA and genetics. 

nucleosome: described as ‘the basic structural form of DNA packaging in eukaryotes’, it’s a segment of DNA wound round a histone ‘octamer’, a set of eight histones in a cubical structure. All of this is for fitting DNA into nuclei. Nucleosomes are believed to carry epigenetic info which modifies their core histones, and their positions in the genome are not random. Each nucleosome core particle consists of approximately 146 base pairs. 

chromatin: a complex of DNA and protein, which packages DNA protectively, condensing the whole into a tight structure. Histones are essential components of chromatin. Chromatin structure is affected by methylation and acetylation of particular proteins, which in turn affects gene expression. 

nucleotides: the basic building blocks of DNA and RNA, they consist of a nucleoside and a phosphate group. A nucleoside itself is a nitrogenous base (also known as a nucleobase) and a five-carbon sugar ribose (a ribose – these explanations always need more explaining – is a simple sugar, the natural form of which is D-ribose, and which comes in various structural forms). DNA and RNA are nucleic acid polymers made up of nucleotide monomers. 

nucleobase: a nitrogenous base (e.g. adenine, cytosine, thymine, guanine, and uracil which replaces thymine in RNA), the fundamental units of our genetic code. Also simply known as a base. 

base pairs: a base pair, in DNA, is one of the pairings adenine-thymine (A-T) or cytosine-guanine (C-G). They are pyrimidine-purine pairings. Adenine and guanine are purines, the other two pyrimidines. Due to their structure pyrimidines always pair with purines. 

CpG islands: regions of DNA with a high frequency of CpG (C-G) sites, i.e. sites where a cytosine nucleotide is followed by a guanine nucleotide in linear sequence in a particular direction. 

histones: highly alkaline proteins, the chief proteins of chromatin, and the means of ordering DNA into nucleosomes. There are four core histones, H2A, H2B, H3 and H4. These form an octamer structure, around which approximately 146 base pairs are wound. 

Obviously, I’m very much a beginner at comprehending all this stuff, but I note that the number of videos on epigenetics seems to increase almost daily, which is raising my skepticism more than anything. I try to be selective in checking out these videos and other info on the topic, as there’s always this human tendency to claim super-solutions to our problems, as in super-foods and super-fitness regimes and the like. I’m more interested in the how of things, which is always a more complicated matter. Other information sources tend to assume knowledge or to skate over obvious complexities in a facile manner, and then of course there’s the ‘problem’ of being a dilettante, who wants to learn more about areas of scientific and historical knowledge often far removed from each other, and time’s running out, and we keep forgetting…

So anyway, I’ll keep plodding along, because it’s all quite interesting.  

Written by stewart henderson

February 23, 2020 at 12:20 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 7: more problems, and ICRs

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2020-02-02-at-10.11.35-pm-1.pngthe only image I can find that I really understand

 

In the previous post in this series I wrote about the connection between two serious disorders, Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome, their connection to a missing small section of chromosome 15, and how they’re related to parental inheritance. These syndromes can sometimes also be traced back to uniparental disomy, in which the section of chromosome 15 is intact, but both copies are inherited from the mother (resulting in PWS) or the father (resulting in AS).

So the key here is that this small section of chromosome 15 needs to be inherited in the correct way because of the imprinting that comes with it. To take it to the genetic level, UBE3A is a gene which is only expressed from the maternal copy of chromosome 15. If that gene is missing in the maternal copy, or if, due to uniparental disomy, both copies of the chromosome are inherited from the father, UBE3A protein won’t be produced and symptoms of Angelman syndrome will appear. Similarly, PWS will develop if a certain imprinted gene or genes aren’t inherited from the father. Other imprinting disorders have been found, for example, one that leads to Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, though the mechanism of action is different, in that both copies of a gene on chromosome 11 are switched on when only the paternal copy should be expressed. This results in abnormal growth (too much growth) in the foetus. It too has an ‘opposite’ syndrome, Silver-Russell syndrome, in which the relevant protein expression is reduced, resulting in retarded growth and dwarfism. 

But now to the question of exactly how genes are switched on and off, or expressed and repressed. DNA methylation, briefly explained in my first post on this topic, is essential to this. Methyl groups are carbon-hydrogen compounds which can be bound to a gene to switch it off, but here’s where I start to get confused. I’ll quote Carey and try to make sense of it:

… it may be surprising to learn that it is often not the gene body that is methylated. The part of the gene that codes for protein is epigenetically broadly the same when we compare the maternal and paternal copies of the chromosome. It’s the region of the chromosome that controls the expression of the gene that is differently methylated between the two genomes.

N Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011 p140

The idea, I now realise, is that there’s a section of the chromosome that controls the part of the gene that codes for the protein and it’s this region that’s differently methylated. Such regions are called imprinting control regions (ICRs). Sometimes this is straightforward, but it can get extremely complicated, with whole clusters of imprinted genes on a stretch of chromosome, being expressed from the maternally or paternally derived chromosomes, and not simply through methylation. An ICR may operate over a large region, creating ‘roadblocks’, keeping different sets of genes apart, and affecting thousands of base-pairs, not always in the same way. Repressed genes may come together in a ‘chromatin knot’, while other, activated genes from the same region form separate bundles.

Imprinting is a feature of brain cells – something which, as of the writing of Carey’s book (2011), is a bit of a mystery. Not so surprising is the number of expressed imprinted genes in the placenta, a place where competing paternal-maternal demands are played out. As to what is going on in the brain, Carey writes this:

Professor Gudrun Moore of University College London has made an intriguing suggestion. She has proposed that the high levels of imprinting in the brain represents a post-natal continuation of the war of the sexes. She has speculated that some brain imprints are an attempt by the paternal genome to promote behaviour in young offspring that will stimulate the mother to continue to drain her own resources, for example by prolonged breastfeeding.

N Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011. pp141-2

This sounds pretty amazing, but it’s a new epigenetic world we’re exploring. I’ll explore more of it next time.

References

The epigenetics revolution, by Nessa Carey, 2011

Epigenetics, video: SciShow

Written by stewart henderson

February 2, 2020 at 10:33 pm

a DNA dialogue 4: purines, mostly

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Canto: So what’s a pyrimidine, molecularly speaking, and why does it differ from a purine, and why does it matter?

Jacinta: They’re two different types of nitrogenous bases, dummy, which are a subset, maybe, of nucleotide bases. All of which is largely gobbledygook at present.

Canto: Ok, we know there are four different nitrogenous bases in DNA.  Two of them, A & G, adenine and guanine, are purines, which structurally are two-carbon nitrogen ring bases. The other two, thymine and cytosine, T & C, are pyrimidines, which are one-carbon nitrogen ring bases. Uracil, in RNA, is also a pyrimidine. It replaces the thymine used in DNA.

Jacinta: That’s right, now we know that in DNA these nitrogenous bases are connected across the double helix, in pairs, in a particular way. A (a purine) always connects with T (a pyrimidine), and similarly C is always bonded to G. So why is this?

Canto: Why is it so? Well, put simply, the molecular structure of purines, which you’ll note have a two-carbon ring structure and so are larger than pyrimidines, doesn’t allow them to bond within the group, that’s to say with other purines, and the same goes with pyrimidines. It’s essentially due to the difference between hydrogen bond donors and acceptors for these groups.

Jacinta: So, looking at purines first, considering that they’re one of the building blocks of life, it’s not surprising that we find them in lots of the food we eat, especially in meat, mostly in organs like kidneys or liver. Structurally they’re heterocyclic aromatic organic compounds – as are pyrimidines. Heterocyclic simply means they have a ring structure composed of more than one element – in this case carbon and nitrogen. An aromatic compound isn’t quite what you think – structurally it means that it’s strong and stable, due to resonance bonds, which we won’t go into here. Below is a model of a purine molecule, which has the chemical formula C5H4N4 – the black globes are carbon atoms, the nitrogens are blue and the hydrogens white.

Purines and pyrimidines are both self-inhibiting and activating, so they actively bond with each other but inhibit self-bonding, so that they maintain a more or less equal amount as each other within the cell.

Canto: So that’s purines in general, but in DNA there are two purines, adenine and guanine, which must differ structurally – and are there any others?

Jacinta: Oh yes, caffeine is a purine, as well as uric acid…

Canto: Definitely aromatic.

Jacinta: And there are many others. Purines are very important molecules, used throughout the body for a variety of purposes, as components of ATP, cyclic AMP, NADH and coenzyme A, for example.

Canto: I’ve heard of some of those…

Jacinta: As to the difference between adenine and guanine, here’s how it’s described in this Research Gate article, which I’m sure is reliable:

The main difference between adenine and guanine is that adenine contains an amine group on C-6, and an additional double bond between N-1 and C-6 in its pyrimidine ring, whereas guanine contains an amine group on C-2 and a carbonyl group on C-6 in its pyrimidine ring

Canto: Shit, that explanation needs to be explained, please.

Jacinta: Haha well let’s look at more diagrammatic structures, but first – an amine group, also called an amino group, is a derivative of  NH3 (ammonia), consisting of a nitrogen atom bonded to hydrogen atoms, at its simplest. This gives adenine the formula ‎C5H5N5. Guanine has, in addition to the amine group, a carbonyl group, which is a carbon double bonded to an oxygen, C=O. This gives guanine the formula C5H5N5O. Anyway, it’ll all become clear over the next dozen or so years…

adenine
guanine


References

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316984935_Difference_Between_Adenine_and_Guanine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adenine

https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Adenine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guanine

Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2020 at 5:26 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 6: when things go wrong

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some visible signs of Angelman syndrome

So imprinting involves parent-of-origin effects of which we find evidence in certain segments of certain chromosomes, in which genes are switched on or off, depending on inheritance. It often seems that these parent-of-origin effects counter-balance each other, as both parents have their own mutually exclusive way of trying to ensure the continuation of their genetic line.

It’ll be tough (for me) to take this down to a molecular level, but I’ll rely heavily on Nessa Carey’s book. It describes work on chromosome 7 in mice. I should first mention that there’s a convention in naming genes using italics, and the proteins they code for without italics. So there’s a gene in chromosome 7 called insulin-like growth factor 2 (Igf2) which promotes embryonic growth, and is usually expressed from the paternal copy. When researchers introduced a mutation which prevented the gene from effectively coding for the Igf2 protein, the offspring of this mutation were unaffected when the mutated gene was inherited from the mother, but the litter of offspring were much smaller when the gene was mutated in the father, showing that it was the paternal copy of the Igf2 gene that was required for foetal growth.

Fascinatingly for this ‘battle of the sexes’, there’s a gene in mouse chromosome 17 – Igf2r – which acts against the Igf2 protein, stopping it from promoting growth. This gene is also imprinted, from the maternal side. And so it goes.

According to Wikipedia, we now know of at least 80 imprinted genes in humans, mostly related to embryonic and placental growth and development. This is almost twice the amount Carey reported on less than a decade ago, so discoveries in this area are moving fast. As Carey writes, it’s uncertain whether there’s less imprinting in humans than in other mammals (we know of about 150 imprinted genes in mice) or whether they’re just harder to detect. Imprinting evolved about 150 million years ago (how do they know that? – as the much-treasured Bill Bryson would say), and is particularly prevalent amongst placental mammals.

This post was supposed to be about the mechanisms involved in imprinting, but my vast readership will have to wait awhile. I’m going to follow Carey, because I’m learning a lot from her, into the next area she writes about – ‘when imprinting goes bad’. She describes two very different conditions from birth, Angelman syndrome (AS) and Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS). Researchers separately studying these conditions found that the parents of the sufferers were usually healthy, yet everything pointed to something genetic going on, presumably during the production of eggs or sperm.

The separate work on the origins of these two permanently debilitating but very different conditions eventually converged, when it was found that in both AS and PWS, the patients were missing a small, identical stretch of chromosome 15. What caused the two entirely different results of this defect was whether it was inherited from the mother (resulting in AS) or the father (resulting in PWS). So the disorder is epigenetically inherited, a further example of a parent-of-origin effect.

Yet some children inherit these disorders without any deletions to chromosome 15. They have two normal copies of chromosome 15 but not from each parent. Instead they have two copies from the mother and none from the father – called uniparental disomy. In another variation on the theme it was later discovered that AS was in some cases caused by the opposite form of uniparental disomy, in which two normal copies of the chromosome were inherited from the father. So, because the particular region of the chromosome is normally imprinted, it’s essential, for healthy offspring, that the region is inherited in the ‘correct’ way, from each parent.

I’ll be looking at more examples of problematic inheritance and imprinted genes next time.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genomic_imprinting

Nessa Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

January 23, 2020 at 12:49 pm

a DNA dialogue 3: two anti-parallel strands

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but why the twist? – we don’t know yet

Jacinta: Ok so these two strands of DNA are described as anti-parallel. Is this just intended to confuse us?

Canto: Apparently not, in fact it’s quite essential. The useful q&a site Quora has good info on this, and understanding it in all its complexity should help us to understand DNA general – it’s one of a thousand useful entry points.

Jacinta: Yes, and I’ll try to explain. It became clear to us last time that the strands or ribbons twisted round in a double helix, called the backbone of the molecule, are made from phosphate and deoxyribose sugar, covalently bonded together. That means tightly bonded. Between the two strands, connecting them like ladder rungs, are nitrogenous bases (this is new to us). That’s adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, bonded together – A always to T, and C to G – with weak hydrogen bonds. We’ll have to look at why they must be paired in this way later.

Canto: It’s called Chargaff’s base pairing rule, which doesn’t tell us much.

Jacinta: And, according to a respondent from Quora, ‘the two strands of DNA are anti-parallel to each other. One of them is called leading strand, the other is lagging strand’. But I don’t quite get this. How are there two strands of DNA? I thought there was one strand with two sugar-phosphate backbones, and a rung made up of two – nitrogenous nucleobases? – weakly connected by hydrogen bonds.

Canto: I think the idea is there are two strands, with the attached bases, one next to another on the strand, and weakly attached to another base, or set of bases each attached to another phosphate-sugar backbone. As to why the whole thing twists, rather than just being a straight up-and-down ladder thing, I’ve no idea. Clearly we’re a couple of dopey beginners.

Jacinta: Well, many of the Quora respondents have been teaching molecular biology for years or are working in the field, and just skimming through, there’s a lot be learned. For now, being anti-parallel is essential for DNA replication – which makes it essential to DNA’s whole purpose if I can call it that. I’ll also just say that the sugars in the backbone have directionality, so that the way everything is structured, one strand has to go in the opposite direction for the replication to work. If for example the strands were facing in the same direction, then the base on one side would connect to a hydrophobic sugar (a good thing) but the base on the other side would be facing a hydrophilic phosphate (a bad thing). Each base needs to bond with a sugar – that’s to say a carbon atom, sugar being carbon-based – so one strand needs to be an inversion of the other. That’s part of the explanation.

Canto: Yes, I find many of the explanations are more like descriptions – they assume a lot of knowledge. For example one respondent says that the base pairs follow Chargaff’s rule and that means purines always pair up with pyrmidines. Not very helpful, unless maybe you’re rote-learning for a test. It certainly doesn’t explain anti-parallelism.

Jacinta: Well, although we don’t fully understand it yet, it’s a bit clearer. Anti-parallelism is an awkward term because it might imply, to the unwary, something very different from being parallel. The strands are actually parallel but facing in the opposite direction, and when you think about the structure, the reason for that becomes clearer. And imagining those backbone strands facing in the same direction immediately shows you the problem, I think.

Canto: Yes and for more insight into all that, we’ll need to look more closely at pyrmidines and purines and the molecular structure of the backbone, and those bases, and maybe this fellow Chargaff.

References

https://www.quora.com/Why-are-DNA-strands-anti-parallel

https://slideplayer.com/slide/13304243/

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2020 at 2:38 pm