what is heredity Heredity is the passing on of traits from parents to their offspring; either through asexual reproduction or sexual reproduction, the offspring cells or organisms acquire the genetic information of their parents. Through heredity, variations between individuals can accumulate and cause species to evolve by natural selection. The study of heredity in biology is genetics.
The complete set of observable traits of the structure and behavior of an organism is called its phenotype. These traits arise from the interaction of its genotype with the environment. As a result, many aspects of an organism’s phenotype are not inherited. For example, suntanned skin comes from the interaction between a person’s phenotype and sunlight; thus, suntans are not passed on to people’s children. However, some people tan more easily than others, due to differences in their genotype: a striking example is people with the inherited trait of albinism, who do not tan at all and are very sensitive to sunburn.
Heritable traits are known to be passed from one generation to the next via DNA, a molecule that encodes genetic information. DNA is a long polymer that incorporates four types of bases, which are interchangeable. The sequence of bases along a particular DNA molecule specifies the genetic information: this is comparable to a sequence of letters spelling out a passage of text. Before a cell divides through mitosis, the DNA is copied, so that each of the resulting two cells will inherit the DNA sequence. A portion of a DNA molecule that specifies a single functional unit is called a gene; different genes have different sequences of bases. Within cells, the long strands of DNA form condensed structures called chromosomes. Organisms inherit genetic material from their parents in the form of homologous chromosomes, containing a unique combination of DNA sequences that code for genes. The specific location of a DNA sequence within a chromosome is known as a locus. If the DNA sequence at a particular locus varies between individuals, the different forms of this sequence are called alleles. DNA sequences can change through mutations, producing new alleles. If a mutation occurs within a gene, the new allele may affect the trait that the gene controls, altering the phenotype of the organism.
However, while this simple correspondence between an allele and a trait works in some cases, most traits are more complex and are controlled by multiple interacting genes within and among organisms. Developmental biologists suggest that complex interactions in genetic networks and communication among cells can lead to heritable variations that may underlie some of the mechanics in developmental plasticity and canalization.
Recent findings have confirmed important examples of heritable changes that cannot be explained by direct agency of the DNA molecule. These phenomena are classed as epigenetic inheritance systems that are causally or independently evolving over genes. Research into modes and mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance is still in its scientific infancy, however, this area of research has attracted much recent activity as it broadens the scope of heritability and evolutionary biology in general. DNA methylation marking chromatin, self-sustaining metabolic loops, gene silencing by RNA interference, and the three dimensional conformationof proteins (such as prions) are areas where epigenetic inheritance systems have been discovered at the organismic level. Heritability may also occur at even larger scales. For example, ecological inheritance through the process of niche construction is defined by the regular and repeated activities of organisms in their environment. This generates a legacy of effect that modifies and feeds back into the selection regime of subsequent generations. Descendants inherit genes plus environmental characteristics generated by the ecological actions of ancestors. Other examples of heritability in evolution that are not under the direct control of genes include the inheritance of cultural traits, group heritability, and symbiogenesis. These examples of heritability that operate above the gene are covered broadly under the title of multilevel or hierarchical selection, which has been a subject of intense debate in the history of evolutionary science. Identical twins have exactly the same DNA, but they are not exactly alike. Each twin has his or her own personality, talents, likes, and dislikes. There are even diseases that appear in one twin but not the other, including arthritis, diabetes, autism, schizophrenia, cancer, and many others. The differences between identical twins don’t come from DNA—they all come from external factors.
Scientists often study twins to understand how genes and the environment work together to affect traits. They compare traits in identical twins, who have identical DNA, and fraternal twins, who share half their DNA, just like any siblings. If a characteristic appears more frequently in identical twin pairs than in fraternal twin pairs, then it has an inherited component.