What you’ll learn to do: Identify the stages of meiosis by picture and by description of major milestones; explain why meiosis involves two rounds of nuclear division
What is the difference between mitosis and meiosis? We know that mitosis produces the somatic cells of the body like skin and muscle cells, and meiosis produces sex cells like eggs and sperm — let’s learn just how similar and different these processes are.
- Identify the stages of meiosis
- Describe the steps of meiosis I
- Describe the steps of meiosis II
Stages of Meiosis
The ability to reproduce in kind is a basic characteristic of all living things. In kind means that the offspring of any organism closely resemble their parent or parents. Hippopotamuses give birth to hippopotamus calves, Joshua trees produce seeds from which Joshua tree seedlings emerge, and adult flamingos lay eggs that hatch into flamingo chicks. In kind does not generally mean exactly the same.
As you have learned, mitosis is the part of a cell reproduction cycle that results in identical daughter nuclei that are also genetically identical to the original parent nucleus. In mitosis, both the parent and the daughter nuclei are at the same ploidy level—diploid for most plants and animals. While many unicellular organisms and a few multicellular organisms can produce genetically identical clones of themselves through mitosis, many single-celled organisms and most multicellular organisms reproduce regularly using another method: meiosis. Sexual reproduction, specifically meiosis and fertilization, introduces variation into offspring that may account for the evolutionary success of sexual reproduction. The vast majority of eukaryotic organisms, both multicellular and unicellular, can or must employ some form of meiosis and fertilization to reproduce.
Meiosis employs many of the same mechanisms as mitosis. However, the starting nucleus is always diploid and the nuclei that result at the end of a meiotic cell division are haploid. To achieve this reduction in chromosome number, meiosis consists of one round of chromosome duplication and two rounds of nuclear division.
Because the events that occur during each of the division stages are analogous to the events of mitosis, the same stage names are assigned. However, because there are two rounds of division, the major process and the stages are designated with a “I” or a “II.” Thus, meiosis I is the first round of meiotic division and consists of prophase I, prometaphase I, and so on. Meiosis II, in which the second round of meiotic division takes place, includes prophase II, prometaphase II, and so on.
Meiosis is preceded by an interphase consisting of the G1, S, and G2 phases, which are nearly identical to the phases preceding mitosis. The G1 phase, which is also called the first gap phase, is the first phase of the interphase and is focused on cell growth. The S phase is the second phase of interphase, during which the DNA of the chromosomes is replicated. Finally, the G2 phase, also called the second gap phase, is the third and final phase of interphase; in this phase, the cell undergoes the final preparations for meiosis.
During DNA duplication in the S phase, each chromosome is replicated to produce two identical copies, called sister chromatids, that are held together at the centromere. The centrosomes, which are the structures that organize the microtubules of the meiotic spindle, also replicate. This prepares the cell to enter prophase I, the first meiotic phase.
As the nuclear envelope begins to break down, the proteins associated with homologous chromosomes bring the pair close to each other. (Recall that, in mitosis, homologous chromosomes do not pair together. In mitosis, homologous chromosomes line up end-to-end so that when they divide, each daughter cell receives a sister chromatid from both members of the homologous pair.) The tight pairing of the homologous chromosomes is called synapsis. In synapsis, the genes on the chromatids of the homologous chromosomes are aligned precisely with each other (Figure 2). The synaptonemal complex supports the exchange of chromosomal segments between non-sister homologous chromatids, a process called crossing over. Crossing over occurs at chaiasmata (singular = chiasma), the point of contact between non-sister chromosomes of a homologous pair (Figure 3).
At the end of prophase I, the pairs are held together only at the chiasmata (Figure 3) and are called tetrads because the four sister chromatids of each pair of homologous chromosomes are now visible.
The crossover events are the first source of genetic variation in the nuclei produced by meiosis. A single crossover event between homologous non-sister chromatids leads to a reciprocal exchange of equivalent DNA between a maternal chromosome and a paternal chromosome. Now, when that sister chromatid is moved into a gamete cell it will carry some DNA from one parent of the individual and some DNA from the other parent. Multiple crossovers in an arm of the chromosome have the same effect, exchanging segments of DNA to create recombinant chromosomes.
A second event in Prophase I is the attachment of the spindle fiber microtubules to the kinetochore proteins at the centromeres. At the end of prometaphase I, each tetrad is attached to microtubules from both poles, with one homologous chromosome facing each pole. The homologous chromosomes are still held together at chiasmata.
In addition, the nuclear membrane has broken down entirely.
During metaphase I, the homologous chromosomes are arranged in the center of the cell with the kinetochores facing opposite poles. The homologous pairs orient themselves randomly at the equator. Recall that homologous chromosomes are not identical. They contain slight differences in their genetic information, causing each gamete to have a unique genetic makeup. This randomness is the physical basis for the creation of the second form of genetic variation in offspring. The number of variations is dependent on the number of chromosomes making up a set. There are two possibilities for orientation at the metaphase plate; the possible number of alignments therefore equals 2n, where n is the number of chromosomes per set. Humans have 23 chromosome pairs, which results in over eight million (223) possible genetically-distinct gametes. This number does not include the variability that was previously created in the sister chromatids by crossover. Given these two mechanisms, it is highly unlikely that any two haploid cells resulting from meiosis will have the same genetic composition (Figure 4).
To summarize the genetic consequences of meiosis I, the maternal and paternal genes are recombined by crossover events that occur between each homologous pair during prophase I. In addition, the random assortment of tetrads on the metaphase plate produces a unique combination of maternal and paternal chromosomes that will make their way into the gametes.
In anaphase I, the microtubules pull the linked chromosomes apart. The sister chromatids remain tightly bound together a the centromere. The chiasmata are broken in anaphase I as the microtubules attached to the fused kinetochores pull the homologous chromosomes apart (Figure 5).
Telophase I and Cytokinesis
In telophase, the separated chromosomes arrive at opposite poles. The remainder of the typical telophase events may or may not occur, depending on the species. In some organisms, the chromosomes decondense and nuclear envelopes form around the chromatids in telophase I. In other organisms, cytokinesis—the physical separation of the cytoplasmic components into two daughter cells—occurs without reformation of the nuclei. In nearly all species of animals and some fungi, cytokinesis separates the cell contents via a cleavage furrow (constriction of the actin ring that leads to cytoplasmic division). In plants, a cell plate is formed during cell cytokinesis by Golgi vesicles fusing at the metaphase plate. This cell plate will ultimately lead to the formation of cell walls that separate the two daughter cells.
Two haploid cells are the end result of the first meiotic division. The cells are haploid because at each pole, there is just one of each pair of the homologous chromosomes. Therefore, only one full set of the chromosomes is present. This is why the cells are considered haploid—there is only one chromosome set, even though each homolog still consists of two sister chromatids. Recall that sister chromatids are merely duplicates of one of the two homologous chromosomes (except for changes that occurred during crossing over). In meiosis II, these two sister chromatids will separate, creating four haploid daughter cells.
In some species, cells enter a brief interphase, or interkinesis, before entering meiosis II. Interkinesis lacks an S phase, so chromosomes are not duplicated. The two cells produced in meiosis I go through the events of meiosis II in synchrony. During meiosis II, the sister chromatids within the two daughter cells separate, forming four new haploid gametes. The mechanics of meiosis II is similar to mitosis, except that each dividing cell has only one set of homologous chromosomes. Therefore, each cell has half the number of sister chromatids to separate out as a diploid cell undergoing mitosis.
If the chromosomes decondensed in telophase I, they condense again. If nuclear envelopes were formed, they fragment into vesicles. The centrosomes that were duplicated during interkinesis move away from each other toward opposite poles, and new spindles are formed. The nuclear envelopes are completely broken down, and the spindle is fully formed. Each sister chromatid forms an individual kinetochore that attaches to microtubules from opposite poles.
The sister chromatids are maximally condensed and aligned at the equator of the cell.
The sister chromatids are pulled apart by the kinetochore microtubules and move toward opposite poles. Non-kinetochore microtubules elongate the cell.
Telophase II and Cytokinesis
The chromosomes arrive at opposite poles and begin to decondense. Nuclear envelopes form around the chromosomes. Cytokinesis separates the two cells into four unique haploid cells. At this point, the newly formed nuclei are both haploid. The cells produced are genetically unique because of the random assortment of paternal and maternal homologs and because of the recombining of maternal and paternal segments of chromosomes (with their sets of genes) that occurs during crossover. The entire process of meiosis is outlined in Figure 7.
The Complete Cycle
This video walks you through meiosis I and meiosis II:
Check Your Understanding
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.