The gametes produced in meiosis aren’t genetically identical to the starting cell, and they also aren’t identical to one another. As an example, consider the meiosis II diagram above, which shows the end products of meiosis for a simple cell with a diploid number of 2n = 4 chromosomes. The four gametes produced at the end of meiosis II are all slightly different, each with a unique combination of the genetic material present in the starting cell.
As it turns out, there are many more potential gamete types than just the four shown in the diagram, even for a simple cell with with only four chromosomes. This diversity of possible gametes reflects two factors: crossing over and the random orientation of homologue pairs during metaphase of meiosis I.
- Crossing over. The points where homologues cross over and exchange genetic material are chosen more or less at random, and they will be different in each cell that goes through meiosis. If meiosis happens many times, as it does in human ovaries and testes, crossovers will happen at many different points. This repetition produces a wide variety of recombinant chromosomes, chromosomes where fragments of DNA have been exchanged between homologues.
- Independent assortment of homologue pairs. The random orientation of homologue pairs during metaphase of meiosis I is another important source of gamete diversity.
What exactly does independent assortment mean here? Well, a homologous pair consists of one homologue from your dad and one from your mom, and you have 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes all together, counting the X and Y as homologous for this purpose. During meiosis I, the homologous pairs will separate to form two equal groups, but it’s not usually the case that all the paternal—dad—chromosomes will go into one group and all the maternal—mom—chromosomes into the other.
Instead, each pair of homologues will effectively flip a coin to decide which chromosome goes into which group. In a cell with just two pairs of homologous chromosomes, like the one at right, random metaphase orientation allows for 22 = 4 different types of possible gametes. In a human cell, the same mechanism allows for 223 = 8,388,608 different types of possible gametes. And that’s not even considering crossovers!
Given those kinds of numbers, it’s very unlikely that any two sperm or egg cells made by a person will be the same. It’s even more unlikely that you and your sister or brother will be genetically identical, unless you happen to be identical twins, thanks to the process of fertilization (in which a unique egg from Mom combines with a unique sperm from Dad, making a zygote whose genotype is well beyond one-in-a-trillion!).
Meiosis and fertilization create genetic variation by making new combinations of gene variants (alleles). In some cases, these new combinations may make an organism more or less fit (able to survive and reproduce), thus providing the raw material for natural selection. Genetic variation is important in allowing a population to adapt via natural selection and thus survive in the long term.