Mutations and Mutagens

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Campbell Biology

Mutations can arise in a number of ways. Errors during DNA replication or recombination can lead to nucleotide-pair substitutions, insertions, or deletions, as well as to mutations affecting longer stretches of DNA. If an incorrect nucleotide is added to a growing chain during replication, for example, the base on that nucleotide will then be mismatched with the nucleotide base on the other strand. In many cases, the error will be corrected by DNA proofreading and repair systems. Otherwise, the incorrect base will be used as a template in the next round of replication, resulting in a mutation. Such mutations are called spontaneous mutations. It is difficult to calculate the rate at which such mutations occur. Rough estimates have been made of the rate of mutation during DNA replication for both E. coli and eukaryotes, and the numbers are similar: About one nucleotide in every 10 billion is altered, and the change is passed on to the next generation of cells.

A number of physical and chemical agents, called mutagens, interact with DNA in ways that cause mutations. In the 1920s, Hermann Muller discovered that X-rays caused genetic changes in fruit flies, and he used X-rays to make Drosophila mutants for his genetic studies. But he also recognized an alarming implication of his discovery: X-rays and other forms of high-energy radiation pose hazards to the genetic material of people as well as laboratory organisms. Mutagenic radiation, a physical mutagen, includes ultraviolet (UV) light, which can cause disruptive thymine dimers in DNA.

Chemical mutagens fall into several categories. Nucleotide analogs are chemicals similar to normal DNA nucleotides but that pair incorrectly during DNA replication. Other chemical mutagens interfere with correct DNA replication by inserting themselves into the DNA and distorting the double helix. Still other mutagens cause chemical changes in bases that change their pairing properties.

Researchers have developed a variety of methods to test the mutagenic activity of chemicals. A major application of these tests is the preliminary screening of chemicals to identify those that may cause cancer. This approach makes sense because most carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) are mutagenic, and conversely, most mutagens are carcinogenic.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 360). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.


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