Major Types of Mutations

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the major types of DNA mutations
Photo shows a person with mottled skin lesions that result from xermoderma pigmentosa.

Figure 1. Xeroderma pigmentosa is a condition in which thymine dimerization from exposure to UV is not repaired. Exposure to sunlight results in skin lesions. (credit: James Halpern et al.)

A well-studied example of a mutation is seen in people suffering from xeroderma pigmentosa (Figure 1). Affected individuals have skin that is highly sensitive to UV rays from the sun.

When individuals are exposed to UV, pyrimidine dimers, especially those of thymine, are formed; people with xeroderma pigmentosa are not able to repair the damage. These are not repaired because of a defect in the nucleotide excision repair enzymes, whereas in normal individuals, the thymine dimers are excised and the defect is corrected. The thymine dimers distort the structure of the DNA double helix, and this may cause problems during DNA replication. People with xeroderma pigmentosa may have a higher risk of contracting skin cancer than those who don’t have the condition.

Errors during DNA replication are not the only reason why mutations arise in DNA. Mutations, variations in the nucleotide sequence of a genome, can also occur because of damage to DNA. Such mutations may be of two types: induced or spontaneous. Induced mutations are those that result from an exposure to chemicals, UV rays, x-rays, or some other environmental agent. Spontaneous mutations occur without any exposure to any environmental agent; they are a result of natural reactions taking place within the body.

Mutations may have a wide range of effects. Point mutations are those mutations that affect a single base pair. The most common nucleotide mutations are substitutions, in which one base is replaced by another. These substitutions can be of two types, either transitions or transversions. Transition substitution refers to a purine or pyrimidine being replaced by a base of the same kind; for example, a purine such as adenine may be replaced by the purine guanine. Transversion substitution refers to a purine being replaced by a pyrimidine, or vice versa; for example, cytosine, a pyrimidine, is replaced by adenine, a purine. Some point mutations are not expressed; these are known as silent mutations. Silent mutations are usually due to a substitution in the third base of a codon, which often represents the same amino acid as the original codon. Other point mutations can result in the replacement of one amino acid by another, which may alter the function of the protein. Point mutations that generate a stop codon can terminate a protein early.

Illustration shows different types of point mutations that result from a single amino acid substitution. In a silent mutation, no change in the amino acid sequence occurs. In a missense mutation, one amino acid is substituted for another. In a nonsense mutation, a stop codon is substituted for an amino acid. In a frameshift mutation, one or more bases is added or deleted, resulting in a change in the reading frame.

Figure 2. Mutations can lead to changes in the protein sequence encoded by the DNA

Some mutations can result in an increased number of copies of the same codon. These are called trinucleotide repeat expansions and result in repeated regions of the same amino acid. Mutations can also be the result of the addition of a base, known as an insertion, or the removal of a base, also known as deletion. If an insertion or deletion results in the alteration of the translational reading frame (a frameshift mutation), the resultant protein is usually nonfunctional. Sometimes a piece of DNA from one chromosome may get translocated to another chromosome or to another region of the same chromosome; this is also known as translocation. These mutation types are shown in Figure 2.

Mutations in repair genes have been known to cause cancer. Many mutated repair genes have been implicated in certain forms of pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, and colorectal cancer. Mutations can affect either somatic cells or germ cells. If many mutations accumulate in a somatic cell, they may lead to problems such as the uncontrolled cell division observed in cancer. If a mutation takes place in germ cells, the mutation will be passed on to the next generation, as in the case of hemophilia and xeroderma pigmentosa.

 

Causes of Genetic Mutations

In Summary: Major Types of Mutations

DNA polymerase can make mistakes while adding nucleotides. Most mistakes are corrected, but if they are not, they may result in a mutation defined as a permanent change in the DNA sequence. Mutations can be of many types, such as substitution, deletion, insertion, and translocation. Mutations in repair genes may lead to serious consequences such as cancer. Mutations can be induced or may occur spontaneously.

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