Mutations are changes in the genetic sequence, and they are a main cause of diversity among organisms. These changes occur at many different levels, and they can have widely differing consequences. In biological systems that are capable of reproduction, we must first focus on whether they are heritable; specifically, some mutations affect only the individual that carries them, while others affect all of the carrier organism's offspring, and further descendants. For mutations to affect an organism's descendants, they must: 1) occur in cells that produce the next generation, and 2) affect the hereditary material. Ultimately, the interplay between inherited mutations and environmental pressures generates diversity among species.
Although various types of molecular changes exist, the word "mutation" typically refers to a change that affects the nucleic acids. In cellular organisms, these nucleic acids are the building blocks of DNA, and in viruses they are the building blocks of either DNA or RNA. One way to think of DNA and RNA is that they are substances that carry the long-term memory of the information required for an organism's reproduction. This article focuses on mutations in DNA, although we should keep in mind that RNA is subject to essentially the same mutation forces.
If mutations occur in non-germline cells, then these changes can be categorized as somatic mutations. The word somatic comes from the Greek word soma which means "body", and somatic mutations only affect the present organism's body. From an evolutionary perspective, somatic mutations are uninteresting, unless they occur systematically and change some fundamental property of an individual--such as the capacity for survival. For example, cancer is a potent somatic mutation that will affect a single organism's survival. As a different focus, evolutionary theory is mostly interested in DNA changes in the cells that produce the next generation.
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