From New World Encyclopedia

Figure 1: Chromosome. (1) Chromatid. One of the two identical parts of the chromosome after S phase. (2) Centromere. The point where the two chromatids touch, and where the microtubules attach. (3) Short arm (4) Long arm.

A chromosome is an organized structure of DNA and protein that is found in cells, with each chromosome being a very long, continuous, single piece of double-stranded DNA (a single DNA molecule) containing many genes, regulatory elements and other nucleotide sequences. The DNA, which carries a cell's genetic information, is normally packaged in the form of one or more of these large macromolecules called chromosomes. The word chromosome comes from the Greek χρώμα (color) and σώμα (body).

In the chromosomes of eukaryotes, the uncondensed DNA exists in a quasi-ordered structure inside the nucleus, where it wraps around histones (structural proteins, Fig. 1). This composite material (the complex of DNA and protein) is called chromatin. During mitosis (cell division), chromatin is condensed into chromosomes. This is the only natural context in which individual chromosomes are visible with an optical microscope.

Prokaryotes do not possess histones or nuclei.

The gain or loss of chromosome material can result in various inherited genetic disorders. In some cases, a failure of personal or societal responsibility can be a factor. For example, exposure to harmful chemicals or radiation, perhaps as a result of warfare or environmental pollution, can cause genetic damage in the germ cells of a parent and result in offspring with the genetic disorder. Illicit drug use, or infection with a pathogen through promiscuous sex can also lead to genetic damage. Even a prescribed drug, thalidomide, was discovered to correlate with birth defects when used during pregnancy.

Each chromosome has two arms, the shorter one called p arm (from the French petit, small) and the longer one q arm (q following p in the Latin alphabet). In its relaxed state, the DNA can be accessed for transcription, regulation, and replication.


Two types of chromatin can be distinguished:

  • Euchromatin, which consists of DNA that is active, in other words, being expressed as protein. It is more loosely wrapped around histones than heterochromatin is, making transcription possible.
  • Heterochromatin, which consists of mostly inactive DNA and is very tightly coiled around histones. It seems to serve structural purposes during the chromosomal stages. Heterochromatin can be further distinguished into two types:
    • Constitutive heterochromatin, which is never expressed. It is located around the centromere and usually contains repetitive sequences.
    • Facultative heterochromatin, which has the ability to return to a euchromatic state. An example is the inactive X chromosome in females.
Figure 2: Different levels of DNA condensation. (1) Single DNA strand. (2) Chromatin strand (DNA with histones). (3) Chromatin during interphase with centromere. (4) Condensed chromatin during prophase. (Two copies of the DNA molecule are now present) (5) Chromosome during metaphase.

In the very early stages of mitosis, the chromatin strands become more and more condensed. They cease to function as accessible genetic material and become a compact transport form. Eventually, the two matching chromatids become visible as a chromosome. (A chromatid is one-half of a replicated chromosome, being considered as a chromatid when attached at the centromere and prior to separation and becoming a daughter chromosome.)

A spindle composed of microtubules is formed. Microtubules are self-assembled from dimers of alpha and beta tubulin (a globular protein), and attach to chromosomes at specialized structures called the kinetochores, one of which is present on each sister chromatid. Sister chromatids are attached at an area called the centromere (not necessarily at the center of the chromosome). A special DNA base sequence in the region of the kinetochores provides, along with special proteins, longer-lasting attachment in this region.

During mitosis, the microtubules pull the chromatids apart, so that each daughter cell inherits one set of chromatids. Once the cells have divided, the chromatids are uncoiled and can function again as chromatin. In spite of their appearance, chromosomes are highly structured, which enables these giant DNA structures to be contained within a cell nucleus (Fig. 2).

Chromosomes in bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals

Chromosomes were first observed in plant cells by Swiss botanist Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli (1817-1891) in 1842, and independently, in Ascaris worms, by the Belgian scientist Edouard Van Beneden (1846-1910). The use of basophilic aniline dyes was a fundamentally new technique for effectively staining the chromatin material inside the nucleus. Their behavior in animal (salamander) cells was later described in detail by German anatomist Walther Flemming (1843-1905), the discoverer of mitosis, in 1882. The name was invented later by another German anatomist, Heinrich von Waldeyer.

Bacterial chromosomes are usually circular, but are sometimes linear. Some bacteria have one chromosome, while others have a few. Bacterial DNA also exists as plasmids, which are circular pieces of DNA that can be transmitted between bacteria. Antibiotic resistance genes are often carried on plasmids and can thus spread between different bacteria. The distinction between plasmids and chromosomes is poorly defined, though size and necessity are generally taken into the account. Bacterial chromosomes have only one origin of replication.

When linear, bacterial chromosomes tend to be tethered to the plasma membrane of the bacteria. In molecular biology application, this allows for its isolation from plasmid DNA by centrifugation of lysed bacteria and pelleting of membranes (and the attached DNA).

Eukaryotes (cells with nuclei such as plants, yeast, and animals) possess multiple linear chromosomes contained in the cell's nucleus. Each chromosome has one centromere, with one or two arms projecting from the centromere.

Number of chromosomes in different species

Chromosome numbers in some animals
Species # Species #
Fruit fly 8 Guinea Pig 16
Dove 16 Snail 24
Earthworm 36 Tibetan fox 36
Cat 38 Pig 38
Mouse 40 Rat 42
Rabbit 44 Syrian hamster 44
Hare 46 Human 46
Gorilla 48 Sheep 54
Elephant 56 Cow 60
Donkey 62 Horse 64
Dog 78 Chicken 78
Carp 104 Butterflies 380
Chromosome numbers in some plants
Plant Species #
Arabidopsis 10
Rye 14
Maize 20
Einkorn wheat 14
Pollard wheat 28
Bread wheat 42
Wild tobacco 24
Cultivated tobacco 48
Fern 1200

To determine the number of chromosomes of an organism (or number of homologous pairs), cells can be locked in metaphase in vitro (in a reaction vial) with colchicine. These cells are then stained (the name chromosome was given because of their ability to be stained), photographed, and arranged into a karyotype (an ordered set of chromosomes, Fig. 3), also called karyogram.

Normal members of a particular species all have the same number of chromosomes (see the table). Asexually reproducing species have one set of chromosomes, which is the same in all body cells.

Gametes, reproductive cells, are haploid [n] and have one set of chromosomes. Sexually reproducing species have somatic cells, body cells, which are diploid (2n), having two sets of chromosomes, one from the mother and one from the father. Gametes are produced by meiosis of a diploid germ line cell. During meiosis, the matching chromosomes of father and mother can exchange small parts of themselves (crossover or recombination), and thus create new chromosomes that are not inherited solely from either parent. When a male and a female gamete merge (fertilization), a new diploid organism is formed.

Some animal and plant species are polyploid (Xn) and have more than two sets of chromosomes. Agriculturally important plants such as tobacco or wheat are often polyploid compared to their ancestral species. Wheat has a haploid number of seven chromosomes, still seen in some cultivarsm as well as the wild progenitors. The more common pasta and bread wheats are polyploid having 28 (tetraploid) and 42 (hexaploid) chromosomes compared to the 14 (diploid) chromosomes in the wild wheat. (Sakamur 1918).

Human chromosomes

Figure 3: Karyogram of human male

In 1921, Theophilus Painter claimed, based on his observations, that human sex cells had 24 pairs of chromosomes, giving humans 48 chromosomes total. It wasn't until 1955 that the number of pairs was clearly shown to be 23.

Like many sexually reproducing species, humans have special gonosomes (sex chromosomes, in contrast to autosomes). These are XX in females and XY in males. In females, one of the two X chromosomes is inactive and can be seen under a microscope as Barr bodies.

Chromosome Genes Bases Determined bases†
1 2968 245,203,898 218,712,898
2 2288 243,315,028 237,043,673
3 2032 199,411,731 193,607,218
4 1297 191,610,523 186,580,523
5 1643 180,967,295 177,524,972
6 1963 170,740,541 166,880,540
7 1443 158,431,299 154,546,299
8 1127 145,908,738 141,694,337
9 1299 134,505,819 115,187,714
10 1440 135,480,874 130,710,865
11 2093 134,978,784 130,709,420
12 1652 133,464,434 129,328,332
13 748 114,151,656 95,511,656
14 1098 105,311,216 87,191,216
15 1122 100,114,055 81,117,055
16 1098 89,995,999 79,890,791
17 1576 81,691,216 77,480,855
18 766 77,753,510 74,534,531
19 1454 63,790,860 55,780,860
20 927 63,644,868 59,424,990
21 303 46,976,537 33,924,742
22 288 49,476,972 34,352,051
X (sex chromosome) 1184 152,634,166 147,686,664
Y (sex chromosome) 231 50,961,097 22,761,097
unplaced various ? 25,263,157 25,062,835
  • † Human Genome Project goals called for determination of only the euchromatic portion of the genome. Telomeres, centromeres, and other heterochromatic regions have been left undetermined, as have a small number of unclonable gaps.[1]

Human chromosomal aberrations

In Down syndrome, chromosome 21 is affected

Some chromosome abnormalities, such as translocations, or chromosomal inversions, do not cause disease in carriers, although they may lead to a higher chance of having a child with a chromosome disorder. Abnormal numbers of chromosomes or chromosome sets (aneuploidy) may be lethal or give rise to genetic disorders. Genetic counseling is offered for families that may carry a chromosome rearrangement.

The gain or loss of chromosome material can lead to a variety of genetic disorders. Examples include:

  • Cri du chat, which is caused by the deletion of part of the short arm of chromosome 5. "Cri du chat" means "cry of the cat" in French, and the condition was so-named because affected babies make high-pitched cries that sound like a cat. Affected individuals have wide-set eyes, a small head and jaw, and are moderately to severely mentally retarded and very short.
  • Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, which is caused by partial deletion of the short arm of chromosome 4. It is characterized by severe growth retardation and severe to profound mental retardation.
  • Down syndrome, usually is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 (trisomy 21). Characteristics include decreased muscle tone, asymmetrical skull, slanting eyes, and mild to moderate mental retardation.
  • Edward's syndrome, which is the second most common trisomy after Down syndrome. It is a trisomy of chromosome 18. Symptoms include mental and motor retardation, as well as numerous congenital anomalies causing serious health problems. Ninety percent die in infancy; however, those who live past their first birthday usually are quite healthy thereafter. They have a characteristic hand appearance with clenched hands and overlapping fingers.
  • Patau Syndrome, also called D-Syndrome or trisomy-13. Symptoms are somewhat similar to those of trisomy-18, but they do not have the characteristic hand shape.
  • Jacobsen syndrome, also called the terminal 11q deletion disorder.[2] This is a very rare disorder. Those affected have normal intelligence or mild mental retardation, with poor expressive language skills. Most have a bleeding disorder called Paris-Trousseau syndrome.
  • Klinefelter's syndrome (XXY). Men with Klinefelter syndrome are usually sterile, and tend to have longer arms and legs and to be taller than their peers. Boys with the syndrome are often shy and quiet, and have a higher incidence of speech delay and dyslexia. During puberty, some of them grow breasts and develop a curvy figure.
  • Turner syndrome (X instead of XX or XY). In Turner syndrome, female sexual characteristics are present but underdeveloped. People with Turner syndrome often have a short stature, low hairline, abnormal eye features and bone development, and a "caved-in" appearance to the chest.
  • XYY syndrome. XYY boys are usually taller than their brothers. They are more likely to be hyperactive, enjoying active games. Despite what was previously believed, XYY boys are no more likely than other boys to be violent.
  • Triple-X syndrome (XXX). XXX girls tend to be tall and thin and are often shy. They have a higher incidence of dyslexia.
  • Small supernumerary marker chromosome. This means there is an extra, abnormal chromosome. Features depend on the origin of the extra genetic material. Cat-eye syndrome and isodicentric chromosome 15 syndrome are both caused by a supernumerary marker chromosome, as is Pallister-Killian syndrome.


  1. Homosapiens, NCBI, 2007.
  2. 11Q,, 2005. Retrieved January 15, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Sakamura, T. 1918. Kurze Mitteilung uber die Chromosomenzahlen und die Verwandtschaftsverhaltnisse der Triticum-Arten. Bot. Mag. 32:151-154.


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