Patterns of Inheritance

Lethal Inheritance Patterns

Inheriting two copies of mutated genes that are nonfunctional can have lethal consequences.

Learning Objectives

Describe recessive and dominant lethal inheritance patterns

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An inheritance pattern in which an allele is only lethal in the homozygous form and in which the heterozygote may be normal or have some altered non-lethal phenotype is referred to as recessive lethal.
  • The dominant lethal inheritance pattern is one in which an allele is lethal both in the homozygote and the heterozygote; this allele can only be transmitted if the lethality phenotype occurs after reproductive age.
  • Dominant lethal alleles are very rare because the allele only lasts one generation and is, therefore, not usually transmitted.
  • In the case where dominant lethal alleles might not be expressed until adulthood, the allele may be unknowingly passed on, resulting in a delayed death in both generations.

Key Terms

  • mutation: any heritable change of the base-pair sequence of genetic material
  • recessive lethal: an inheritance pattern in which an allele is only lethal in the homozygous form and in which the heterozygote may be normal or have some altered non-lethal phenotype
  • dominant lethal: an inheritance pattern is one in which an allele is lethal both in the homozygote and the heterozygote; this allele can only be transmitted if the lethality phenotype occurs after reproductive age

Lethal Inheritance Patterns

A large proportion of genes in an individual’s genome are essential for survival. Occasionally, a nonfunctional allele for an essential gene can arise by mutation and be transmitted in a population as long as individuals with this allele also have a wild-type, functional copy. The wild-type allele functions at a capacity sufficient to sustain life and is, therefore, considered to be dominant over the nonfunctional allele. However, consider two heterozygous parents that have a genotype of wild-type/nonfunctional mutant for a hypothetical essential gene. In one quarter of their offspring, we would expect to observe individuals that are homozygous recessive for the nonfunctional allele. Because the gene is essential, these individuals might fail to develop past fertilization, die in utero, or die later in life, depending on what life stage requires this gene. An inheritance pattern in which an allele is only lethal in the homozygous form and in which the heterozygote may be normal or have some altered non-lethal phenotype is referred to as recessive lethal.

For crosses between heterozygous individuals with a recessive lethal allele that causes death before birth when homozygous, only wild-type homozygotes and heterozygotes would be observed. The genotypic ratio would therefore be 2:1. In other instances, the recessive lethal allele might also exhibit a dominant (but not lethal) phenotype in the heterozygote. For instance, the recessive lethal Curly allele in Drosophila affects wing shape in the heterozygote form, but is lethal in the homozygote.

Dominant Lethal Alleles

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Effects of Huntington’s disease on neurons: The neuron in the center of this micrograph (yellow) has nuclear inclusions characteristic of Huntington’s disease (orange area in the center of the neuron). Huntington’s disease occurs when an abnormal dominant allele for the Huntington gene is present.

A single copy of the wild-type allele is not always sufficient for normal functioning or even survival. The dominant lethal inheritance pattern is one in which an allele is lethal both in the homozygote and the heterozygote; this allele can only be transmitted if the lethality phenotype occurs after reproductive age. Individuals with mutations that result in dominant lethal alleles fail to survive even in the heterozygote form. Dominant lethal alleles are very rare because, as you might expect, the allele only lasts one generation and is not transmitted.

However, just as the recessive lethal allele might not immediately manifest the phenotype of death, dominant lethal alleles also might not be expressed until adulthood. Once the individual reaches reproductive age, the allele may be unknowingly passed on, resulting in a delayed death in both generations.

An example of this in humans is Huntington’s disease in which the nervous system gradually wastes away. People who are heterozygous for the dominant Huntington allele (Hh) will inevitably develop the fatal disease. However, the onset of Huntington’s disease may not occur until age 40, at which point the afflicted persons may have already passed the allele to 50 percent of their offspring.

Sex-Linked Traits

A gene present on one of the sex chromosomes (X or Y in mammals) is a sex-linked trait because its expression depends on the sex of the individual.

Learning Objectives

Distinguish between sex-linked traits and other forms of inheritance

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In mammals, females have a homologous pair of X chromosomes, whereas males have an XY chromosome pair.
  • The Y chromosome contains a small region of similarity to the X chromosome so that they can pair during meiosis, but the Y is much shorter and contains fewer genes.
  • Males are said to be hemizygous because they have only one allele for any X-linked characteristic; males will exhibit the trait of any gene on the X-chromosome regardless of dominance and recessiveness.
  • Most sex-linked traits are actually X-linked, such as eye color in Drosophila or color blindness in humans.

Key Terms

  • hemizygous: Having some single copies of genes in an otherwise diploid cell or organism.
  • X-linked: Associated with the X chromosome.
  • carrier: A person or animal that transmits a disease to others without itself contracting the disease.
  • sex chromosomes: A chromosome involved with determining the sex of an organism, typically one of two kinds.

Sex Determination

In humans, as well as in many other animals and some plants, the sex of the individual is determined by sex chromosomes. However, there are other sex determination systems in nature. For example, temperature-dependent sex determination is relatively common,
and there are many other types of environmental sex determination. Some species, such as some snails, practice sex change adults start out male, then become female. In tropical clown fish, the dominant individual in a group becomes female while the others are male.

The sex chromosomes are one pair of non-homologous chromosomes. Until now, we have only considered inheritance patterns among non-sex chromosomes, or autosomes. In addition to 22 homologous pairs of autosomes, human females have a homologous pair of X chromosomes, whereas human males have an XY chromosome pair. Although the Y chromosome contains a small region of similarity to the X chromosome so that they can pair during meiosis, the Y chromosome is much shorter and contains many fewer genes. When a gene being examined is present on the X chromosome, but not on the Y chromosome, it is said to be X-linked.

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Human male karyotype: A human males possesses XY chromosomes, as seen in the bottom left of this karyotype. The Y chromosome is much shorter than the X chromosome, unlike all of the other homologous chromosome pairs.

X-Linked Traits

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Eye color in Drosophila is an example of a X-linked trait: In Drosophila, the gene for eye color is located on the X chromosome. Clockwise from top left are brown, cinnabar, sepia, vermilion, white, and red. Red eye color is wild-type and is dominant to white eye color.

Insects also follow an XY sex-determination pattern and like humans, Drosophila males have an XY chromosome pair and females are XX. Eye color in Drosophila was one of the first X-linked traits to be identified, and Thomas Hunt Morgan mapped this trait to the X chromosome in 1910.

In fruit flies, the wild-type eye color is red (XW) and is dominant to white eye color (Xw). Because this eye-color gene is located on the X chromosome only, reciprocal crosses do not produce the same offspring ratios. Males are said to be hemizygous, because they have only one allele for any X-linked characteristic. Hemizygosity makes the descriptions of dominance and recessiveness irrelevant for XY males because each male only has one copy of the gene. Drosophila males lack a second allele copy on the Y chromosome; their genotype can only be XWY or XwY. In contrast, females have two allele copies of this gene and can be XWXW, XWXw, or XwXw.

X-Linked Crosses

In an X-linked cross, the genotypes of F1 and F2 offspring depend on whether the recessive trait was expressed by the male or the female in the P1 generation. With regard to Drosophila eye color, when the P1 male expresses the white-eye phenotype and the female is homozygous red-eyed, all members of the F1 generation exhibit red eyes. The F1 females are heterozygous (XWXw), and the males are all XWY, having received their X chromosome from the homozygous dominant P1 female and their Y chromosome from the P1 male.

A subsequent cross between the XWXw female and the XWY male would produce only red-eyed females (with XWXW or XWXw genotypes) and both red- and white-eyed males (with XWY or XwY genotypes). Now, consider a cross between a homozygous white-eyed female and a male with red eyes. The F1 generation would exhibit only heterozygous red-eyed females (XWXw) and only white-eyed males (XwY). Half of the F2 females would be red-eyed (XWXw) and half would be white-eyed (XwXw). Similarly, half of the F2 males would be red-eyed (XWY) and half would be white-eyed (XwY).

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Punnett square analysis of Drosophila eye color: Punnett square analysis is used to determine the ratio of offspring from a cross between a red-eyed male fruit fly (XWY) and a white-eyed female fruit fly (XwXw).

X-Linked Recessive Disorders in Humans

Sex-linkage studies provided the fundamentals for understanding X-linked recessive disorders in humans, which include red-green color blindness and Types A and B hemophilia. Because human males need to inherit only one recessive mutant X allele to be affected, X-linked disorders are disproportionately observed in males. Females must inherit recessive X-linked alleles from both of their parents in order to express the trait.

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Color perception in different types of color blindness: In this chart you can see what people with different types of color blindness can see versus the normal color vision line at top.

Recessive Carriers

When they inherit one recessive X-linked mutant allele and one dominant X-linked wild-type allele, they are carriers of the trait and are typically unaffected. Carrier females can manifest mild forms of the trait due to the inactivation of the dominant allele located on one of the X chromosomes. However, female carriers can contribute the trait to their sons, resulting in the son exhibiting the trait, or they can contribute the recessive allele to their daughters, resulting in the daughters being carriers of the trait. Although some Y-linked recessive disorders exist, typically they are associated with infertility in males and are, therefore, not transmitted to subsequent generations.

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Inheritance of a recessive X-linked disorder: The son of a woman who is a carrier of a recessive X-linked disorder will have a 50 percent chance of being affected. A daughter will not be affected, but she will have a 50 percent chance of being a carrier like her mother.