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Take a moment to think of your identity. What is it that defines who you are? What makes you unique? Maybe it's what you do, or your personality? Perhaps it's your family or your friends? Possibly, it's your physical characteristics, or potentially it's more abstract like the way you think? 

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Take a moment to think of your identity. What is it that defines who you are? What makes you unique? Maybe it's what you do, or your personality? Perhaps it's your family or your friends? Possibly, it's your physical characteristics, or potentially it's more abstract like the way you think?

Humans have been trying to answer this question for as long as we can remember, and we've come up with many answers. Biologists have found one that has gained a lot of support and works across all life: DNA. But different organisms hold their DNA in different forms, one form is called chromosomes!

These tightly wrapped packages of DNA and protein hold all the information that makes up all living things, the information that makes you, YOU!

  • First, we will look at the definition of a chromosome.
  • Then, we will explore its function.
  • After, we will explore the structure and location of a chromosome.
  • Then, we will discuss the Genome and what homologous chromosomes are.
  • Lastly, we will look at the XX and XY chromosomes.

Chromosome Definition

Let's begin by stating the definition of a chromosome.

Chromosomes are defined as long, threadlike structures that are made of DNA and hold Genetic Information in the cell.

Chromosomes are part of a cell's Genome. Here we will explore how chromosomes function within the cell, the structure of chromosomes, explain genomes and homologous chromosomes, and provide an example of sex chromosomes.

Chromosome Function

Though it is microscopic, DNA is an extremely long, string-like molecule. If all the DNA in just one of your Cells was unfolded and stretched end to end, it would be almost 10 feet (3.05 m) long.

Your body is made up of nearly 37 TRILLION Cells. If all of your DNA was stretched out like that, it would extend for 111 billion kilometers, or 68.9 billion miles. To manage this, your cells wrap up DNA when it is not in use.

Let's look at a simpler analogy:

Think of a kite. On a windy day, it may be fun to fly in the air, but on any other day it would not fly. The kite itself could get damaged, and the long string would get tangled.Instead, you would roll the string up around a spool to keep it neat, and then wrap the kite itself around that spool to store it.

This kite is a useful analogy to help us think of DNA and chromosomes. When being used during DNA replication, Transcription, and Translation, the DNA is unwrapped and loose, just like the kite and its string, free to fly in the air. But if you are going to store the kite, you would wrap it up.

Similarly, eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells fold and wrap up DNA during Cell Division, as part of the Cell Cycle. This helps the DNA to be divided evenly. The DNA is wrapped around itself and Proteins in a series of levels, the end result being a chromosome.

Chromosome Structure and Location

Prokaryotic Chromosomes

A prokaryotic chromosome is a single, long double-stranded DNA molecule that forms a circular loop. The region of the cell where prokaryotes keep their chromosome is called the nucleoid.

Below is a diagram showing the structure of a prokaryotic cell with the chromosome in the nucleoid (figure 1). Prokaryotes often pick up smaller loops of DNA from their environment, these are called plasmids. These are not essential to the life of the prokaryote, but often hold advantageous traits, like antibiotic resistance, and are one-way beneficial traits are passed between bacterial cells in colonies.

Chromosome prokaryotic cell StudySmarterFigure 1. Typical prokaryotic cell showing DNA chromosome and nucleoid,

Eukaryotic Chromosomes

Eukaryotes have many linear DNA molecules separated into chromosomes. Chromosomes are located in the eukaryotic cell's nucleus, and they are most visible in the cell during cellular division.

Chromosomes are formed during complex hierarchical levels of folding. It starts with a long double strand of replicated DNA, after the S phase in the Cell Cycle. The double helix then wraps around a protein called a histone, very similar to wrapping the string of the kite around its spool, or wrapping beads in a string. This DNA and histone "bead" is called a nucleosome.

The nucleosomes continue to coil up, almost like a slinky. This set of multiple coiled nucleosomes is called chromatin. Chromatin is then wrapped up even further around scaffolding Proteins. Finally, all the chromatin wraps around the scaffolding Proteins, forming a chromosome (Fig. 2).

Each time the DNA wraps itself in this way, the physical length gets shorter and shorter, allowing the DNA to be easily stored in the nucleus and kept safe during Cell Division.

Chromosomes chromosome structure StudySmarterFigure 2. The organizational structure of a chromosome,

Looking at the last row above, you'll see the duplicated chromosome. The chromosome is duplicated because chromosomes fold after DNA replication, the S phase of the cell cycle.

Since this occurs after DNA replication, the chromosomes look like little X shapes. Each half of the X is identical, replicated DNA, called a chromatid.

Together in this X shape, they are called sister chromatids because they came from the same "parent" during DNA replication. They are held together by a structure in the middle of the X called a centromere.

During cell division, all the cell's chromosomes line up with their centromeres in the middle of the cell. Spindle fibers attach to the centromere to pull the sister chromatids apart into the two new daughter cells.

A spindle fiber is a microtubule structure formed during cell division which pulls the sister chromatids apart to opposing sides of the cell during division. If this goes well, the daughter cells will each have one copy of each chromatid.

Genome and homologous chromosomes

Now, let's elaborate on the genome and learn about homologous chromosomes.

A genome is all the genetic material in an organism.

In prokaryotes, this includes their singular circular chromosome and the plasmids they pick up from the environment. In eukaryotes, their genome includes their mitochondrial DNA and all of their nuclear chromosomes.

Each species has a certain number of chromosomes in its nuclei. The average human cell, a somatic cell, has a total of 46, and human gametes (the sex cells such as eggs and sperm) have half that number, 23.

When gametes come together during sexual Reproduction, the fertilized egg will have a full set of matching chromosomes, 23 from the sperm and 23 from the egg.

Because the number of chromosomes differs from species to species, scientists use the letter n to designate the number of chromosomes received from the organism's parent. In the case of humans, n would be 23 chromosomes, and the somatic cell would have 2n, or 46 chromosomes. We also have special terms to designate this: we call cells that have 2n chromosomes diploid, and cells that have just one n chromosomes haploid.

Biologists call the matching set of 2n chromosomes homologous chromosomes.

Homologous chromosomes are chromosomes which hold the same information. Each pair of homologous chromosomes are the same length and hold the same number and types of Genes at the same locus (the location on the chromosome).

Homologous comes from the Greek words for "same" (homo) and ratio or logic (logos).

Genes are the functional unit of a chromosome and each gene holds the necessary information to make proteins for a specific characteristic.

A pair of homologous chromosomes both have genes for hair color, but each chromosome might have a slightly different version, a different trait. Both of the chromosomes have information that codes for hair color, but the chromosome you received from the egg might hold instructions for a dark black hair trait, but the chromosome you received from the sperm might hold instructions for a red hair trait.

Each chromosome in a homologous pair comes from a different parent, and is therefore going to be at least slightly different. Even minor differences in the DNA sequences of a homologous pair can lead to different traits, and the combination of the two together allows for even more variation within a species.

Let's look at human Blood type. There are three different traits for proteins that make the blood type we call A, B, and O. Depending on what trait is on your chromosome, that is your blood type. We get a pair of homologous chromosomes, one from the egg and one from the sperm. You may get two chromosomes with the same trait, so AA, BB, or OO. Or you may get a combination of the blood types, such as AB, OA, or OB.

XX chromosomes and XY chromosomes

Each chromosome in a homologous pair is almost exactly the same length and holds genes for the same characteristics. The notable exceptions to this rule are the sex chromosomes: X, and Y.

The X chromosome is much larger than the Y chromosome, and only a small portion of these chromosomes have homologous genes, which are genes for the same characteristics. These genes help to determine the sexual characteristics of females and males.

  • Typically, humans with XX chromosomes have female traits and humans that have XY chromosomes have male traits.

Below is an image, called a karyotype, showing the 23 homologous human chromosomes. It depicts each pair and the difference in the length of the X and Y chromosomes (Fig. 3).

Chromosomes human karyotype StudySmarterFigure 3. A human karyotype shows the 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes, including the difference between X and Y chromosomes.

Chromosomes - Key takeaways

  • Chromosomes are made of DNA and proteins and help the DNA split evenly during cellular division.
  • Prokaryotic chromosomes are stored in the cell's nucleoid, while eukaryotic chromosomes are held in the cell's nucleus.
  • Eukaryotic chromosomes have a hierarchical folding system.
  • Eukaryotes have homologous chromosomes, chromosomes that hold genes for the same information.
  • Sex chromosomes are homologous chromosomes that hold genes for sexual characteristics. These chromosomes look different from one another and are named for their appearance: X and Y.

Frequently Asked Questions about Chromosomes

Forty-six chromosomes are found in normal human cells. 

Chromosomes are DNA and proteins coiled together and are found within the nucleus 

Chromatin condenses to form chromosomes. 

They are found within the nucleus. 

The average human has forty-six chromosomes.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Histones are:

Prokaryotic chromosomes are stored in the:

Choose the answer that is true for Sex Chromosomes.


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