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8.1: Human Chromosomes and Genes

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Lesson Objective

  • Define the human genome.
  • Describe human chromosomes and genes.
  • Explain linkage and linkage maps.


  • autosome
  • human genome
  • Human Genome Project
  • linkage map
  • linked genes
  • sex chromosome
  • sex-linked gene
  • X-linked gene


Nobody else in the world is exactly like you. What makes you different from everyone else? Genes have a lot to do with it. Unless you have an identical twin, no one else on Earth has exactly the same genes as you. What about identical twins? Are they identical in every way? They develop from the same fertilized egg, so they have all same genes, but even they are not completely identical. Why? The environment also influences human characteristics, and no two people have exactly the same environment.

The Human Genome

All the DNA of the human species makes up the human genome. This DNA consists of about 3 billion base pairs and is divided into thousands of genes on 23 pairs of chromosomes. The human genome also includes noncoding sequences of DNA, as shown in Figure below.

Human Genome, Chromosomes, and Genes. Each chromosome of the human genome contains many genes as well as noncoding intergenic (between genes) regions. Each pair of chromosomes is shown here in a different color.

Thanks to the Human Genome Project, scientists now know the DNA sequence of the entire human genome. The Human Genome Project is an international project that includes scientists from around the world. It began in 1990, and by 2003, scientists had sequenced all 3 billion base pairs of human DNA. Now they are trying to identify all the genes in the sequence.

You can watch a video about the Human Genome Project and how it cracked the code of life at this link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/genome/program.html.

Our Molecular Selves video discusses the human genome, and is available at http://www.genome.gov/25520211  

Chromosomes and Genes

Each species has a characteristic number of chromosomes. The human species is characterized by 23 pairs of chromosomes, as shown in Figure below and Figure below. You can watch a short animation about human chromosomes at this link: http://www.dnalc.org/view/15520-DNA-is-organized-into-46-chromosomes-including-sex-chromosomes-3D-animation.html.

Human Chromosomes. Human chromosomes are shown here arranged by size. Chromosome 1 is the largest, and chromosome 22 is the smallest. All normal human cells (except gametes) have two of each chromosome, for a total of 46 chromosomes per cell. Only one of each pair is shown here.

Human Chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Pairs 1-22 are autosomes. Females have two X chromosomes, and males have an X and a Y chromosome.


Of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes, 22 pairs are autosomes (numbers 1–22 in Figure above). Autosomes are chromosomes that contain genes for characteristics that are unrelated to sex. These chromosomes are the same in males and females. The great majority of human genes are located on autosomes. At the link below, you can click on any human chromosome to see which traits its genes control. http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/posters/chromosome/chooser.shtml

Sex Chromosomes

The remaining pair of human chromosomes consists of the sex chromosomes, X and Y. Females have two X chromosomes, and males have one X and one Y chromosome. In females, one of the X chromosomes in each cell is inactivated and known as a Barr body. This ensures that females, like males, have only one functioning copy of the X chromosome in each cell.

As you can see from Figure above and Figure above, the X chromosome is much larger than the Y chromosome. The X chromosome has about 2,000 genes, whereas the Y chromosome has fewer than 100, none of which are essential to survival. Virtually all of the X chromosome genes are unrelated to sex. Only the Y chromosome contains genes that determine sex. A single Y chromosome gene, called SRY (which stands for sex-determining region Y gene), triggers an embryo to develop into a male. Without a Y chromosome, an individual develops into a female, so you can think of female as the default sex of the human species. Can you think of a reason why the Y chromosome is so much smaller than the X chromosome? At the link that follows, you can watch an animation that explains why: http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/gender/Y_evolution.html.

Human Genes

Humans have an estimated 20,000 to 22,000 genes. This may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. Far simpler species have almost as many genes as humans. However, human cells use splicing and other processes to make multiple proteins from the instructions encoded in a single gene. Of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome, only about 25 percent make up genes and their regulatory elements. The functions of many of the other base pairs are still unclear. To learn more about the coding and noncoding sequences of human DNA, watch the animation at this link: http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/dna/DNAi_coding_sequences.html.

The majority of human genes have two or more possible alleles. Differences in alleles account for the considerable genetic variation among people. In fact, most human genetic variation is the result of differences in individual DNA bases within alleles.


Genes that are located on the same chromosome are called linked genes. Alleles for these genes tend to segregate together during meiosis, unless they are separated by crossing-over. Crossing-over occurs when two homologous chromosomes exchange genetic material during meiosis I. The closer together two genes are on a chromosome, the less likely their alleles will be separated by crossing-over.

Linkage explains why certain characteristics are frequently inherited together. For example, genes for hair color and eye color are linked, so certain hair and eye colors tend to be inherited together, such as blonde hair with blue eyes and brown hair with brown eyes. What other human traits seem to occur together? Do you think they might be controlled by linked genes?

Sex-Linked Genes

Genes located on the sex chromosomes are called sex-linked genes. Most sex-linked genes are on the X chromosome, because the Y chromosome has relatively few genes. Strictly speaking, genes on the X chromosome are X-linked genes, but the term sex-linked is often used to refer to them.

Sex-linked traits are discussed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ROhfKyxgCo (14:19).

Mapping Linkage

Linkage can be assessed by determining how often crossing-over occurs between two genes on the same chromosome. Genes on different (nonhomologous) chromosomes are not linked. They assort independently during meiosis, so they have a 50 percent chance of ending up in different gametes. If genes show up in different gametes less than 50 percent of the time (that is, they tend to be inherited together), they are assumed to be on the same (homologous) chromosome. They may be separated by crossing-over, but this is likely to occur less than 50 percent of the time. The lower the frequency of crossing-over, the closer together on the same chromosome the genes are presumed to be. Frequencies of crossing-over can be used to construct a linkage map like the one in Figure below. A linkage map shows the locations of genes on a chromosome.

Linkage Map for the Human X Chromosome. This linkage map shows the locations of several genes on the X chromosome. Some of the genes code for normal proteins. Others code for abnormal proteins that lead to genetic disorders. Which pair of genes would you expect to have a lower frequency of crossing-over: the genes that code for hemophilia A and G6PD deficiency, or the genes that code for protan and Xm?

Lesson Summary

  • The human genome consists of about 3 billion base pairs of DNA. In 2003, the Human Genome Project finished sequencing all 3 billion base pairs.
  • Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Of these, 22 pairs are autosomes. The X and Y chromosomes are the sex chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes, and males have one X and one Y. Human chromosomes contain a total of 20,000 to 22,000 genes, the majority of which have two or more alleles.
  • Linked genes are located on the same chromosome. Sex-linked genes are located on a sex chromosome, and X-linked genes are located on the X chromosome. The frequency of crossing-over between genes is used to construct linkage maps that show the locations of genes on chromosomes.

Lesson Review Questions


1. Describe the human genome.

2. What has the Human Genome Project achieved?

3. What are linked genes?

4. Describe human genetic variation.

Apply Concepts

5. Explain how you would construct a linkage map for a human chromosome. What data would you need?

Think Critically

6. Compare and contrast human autosomes and sex chromosomes.

7. People with red hair usually have very light skin. What might be a genetic explanation for this observation?

Points to Consider

You read in this lesson about the chromosomes and genes that control human traits. Most traits are controlled by genes on autosomes, but many are controlled by genes on the X chromosome.

  • Do you think it matters whether a gene is on an autosome or the X chromosome when it comes to how it is inherited?
  • How do mothers and fathers pass their sex chromosomes to their sons and daughters? Their autosomes?

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