Biology » Modern Understandings of Inheritance » Chromosomal Basis of Inherited Disorders



An individual with the appropriate number of chromosomes for their species is called euploid; in humans, euploidy corresponds to 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes. An individual with an error in chromosome number is described as aneuploid, a term that includes monosomy (loss of one chromosome) or trisomy (gain of an extraneous chromosome).

Monosomic human zygotes missing any one copy of an autosome invariably fail to develop to birth because they lack essential genes. This underscores the importance of “gene dosage” in humans. Most autosomal trisomies also fail to develop to birth; however, duplications of some of the smaller chromosomes (13, 15, 18, 21, or 22) can result in offspring that survive for several weeks to many years.

Trisomic individuals suffer from a different type of genetic imbalance: an excess in gene dose. Individuals with an extra chromosome may synthesize an abundance of the gene products encoded by that chromosome. This extra dose (150 percent) of specific genes can lead to a number of functional challenges and often precludes development.

The most common trisomy among viable births is that of chromosome 21, which corresponds to Down Syndrome. Individuals with this inherited disorder are characterized by short stature and stunted digits, facial distinctions that include a broad skull and large tongue, and significant developmental delays. The incidence of Down syndrome is correlated with maternal age; older women are more likely to become pregnant with fetuses carrying the trisomy 21 genotype (see the figure below).

 This graph shows the risk of Down syndrome in the fetus with increasing maternal age. Risk dramatically increases past a maternal age of 35.

The incidence of having a fetus with trisomy 21 increases dramatically with maternal age.

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