Why do we need chromosomes?

Most cells in our bodies contain 46 separate long DNA strings that spend most of their time in what appears to be a tangled mess – in a round sort of shape we know as the nucleus. Then lo and behold, these long strings fold up and become chromosomes. Why do they do that?

Bill Earnshaw’s lab at Edinburgh University does some amazing work with chromosomes and cell division. He can explain very elegantly why we need chromosomes.

The DNA makes a copy of itself before the cell divides into two. The chromosomes help make sure each new daughter cell gets an identical copy of this DNA. It’s easier to divide tangled strings into two if you untangle them and roll them up into balls first.

Here it is in real life:

In the video you can see the chromosomes line up along the middle of the dividing cell (the “equator” or “metaphase plate”). When they’re all lined up correctly (this stage is “metaphase”) the chromosomes can split in two halves which separate. The whole cycle of chromosome growth and division is called “mitosis”.

DNA carries genes that make up the blueprint that’s responsible for making every cell, every tissue, every organ work correctly. So it’s important we have the right set of genes.

Cells divide a lot – millions of our cells divide every minute so it’s important that the DNA is shared precisely each time. Mistakes can cause the new daughter cells to misfunction. These cells can become cancerous or produce babies with genetic disease. Usually the cell watches out for these mistakes and self-destructs. But not always. Research helps us understand these processes, how they can go wrong, and work out ways to prevent or fix these mistakes.


Cross-posted to chromosomesandcancer.com.