Chromosomal crossover

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Crossing over occurs between prophase 1 and metaphase 1 and is the process where homologous chromosomes pair up with each other and exchange different segments of their genetic material to form recombinant chromosomes. It can also happen during mitotic division,[1] which may result in loss of heterozygosity. Crossing over is essential for the normal segregation of chromosomes during meiosis.[citation needed] Crossing over also accounts for genetic variation, because due to the swapping of genetic material during crossing over, the chromatids held together by the centromere are no longer identical. So, when the chromosomes go on to meiosis II and separate, some of the daughter cells receive daughter chromosomes with recombined alleles. Due to this genetic recombination, the offspring have a different set of alleles and genes than their parents do. In the diagram, genes B and b are crossed over with each other, making the resulting recombinants after meiosis Ab, AB, ab, and aB.
Thomas Hunt Morgan's illustration of crossing over (1916)
A double crossing over

Chromosomal crossover (or crossing over) is the exchange of genetic material between homologous chromosomes that results in recombinant chromosomes during sexual reproduction. It is one of the final phases of genetic recombination, which occurs in the pachytene stage of prophase I of meiosis during a process called synapsis. Synapsis begins before the synaptonemal complex develops and is not completed until near the end of prophase I. Crossover usually occurs when matching regions on matching chromosomes break and then reconnect to the other chromosome.

Crossing over was described, in theory, by Thomas Hunt Morgan. He relied on the discovery of the Belgian Professor Frans Alfons Janssens of the University of Leuven who described the phenomenon in 1909 and had called it "chiasmatypie". The term chiasma is linked if not identical to chromosomal crossover. Morgan immediately saw the great importance of Janssens' cytological interpretation of chiasmata to the experimental results of his research on the heredity of Drosophila. The physical basis of crossing over was first demonstrated by Harriet Creighton and Barbara McClintock in 1931.[2]


There are two popular and overlapping theories explaining the origins of crossing-over, coming from the different theories on the origin of meiosis. The first theory rests upon the idea that meiosis evolved as another method of DNA repair, and thus crossing-over is a novel way to replace possibly damaged sections of DNA.[3] The second theory comes from the idea that meiosis evolved from bacterial transformation, with the function of propagating genetic diversity.[4]

DNA repair theory[edit]

Crossing over and DNA repair are very similar processes, which utilize many of the same protein complexes.[3][5][6] While the formation of chiasma is unique to chromosomal cross over, the use of recombinases and primases to lay a foundation of nucleotides along the DNA sequence. One such particular protein complex that is conserved between processes is RAD51, a well conserved recombinase protein that has been shown to be crucial in DNA repair as well as cross over.[7] Several other genes in D. melanogaster have been linked as well to both processes, by showing that mutants at these specific loci cannot undergo DNA repair or crossing over. Such genes include mei-41, mei-9, hdm, spnA, and brca2.[3] This large group of conserved genes between processes supports the theory of a close evolutionary relationship. Furthermore, DNA repair and crossover have been found to favor similar regions on chromosomes. In an experiment using radiation hybrid mapping on wheat’s (Triticum aestivum L.) 3B chromosome, crossing over and DNA repair were found to occur predominantly in the same regions.[8] Furthermore, crossing over has been correlated to occur in response to stressful, and likely DNA damaging, conditions [9][10]

Links to bacterial transformation[edit]

The process of bacterial transformation also shares many similarities with chromosomal cross over, particularly in the formation of overhangs on the sides of the broken DNA strand, allowing for the annealing of a new strand. Bacterial transformation itself has been linked to DNA repair many times.[3] The second theory comes from the idea that meiosis evolved from bacterial transformation, with the function of propagating genetic diversity.[4] .[11] Thus, this evidence suggests that it is a question of whether cross over is linked to DNA repair or bacterial transformation, as the two do not appear to be mutually exclusive. It is likely that crossing over may have evolved from bacterial transformation, which in turn developed from DNA repair, thus explaining the links between all three processes.


A current model of meiotic recombination, initiated by a double-strand break or gap, followed by pairing with an homologous chromosome and strand invasion to initiate the recombinational repair process. Repair of the gap can lead to crossover (CO) or non-crossover (NCO) of the flanking regions. CO recombination is thought to occur by the Double Holliday Junction (DHJ) model, illustrated on the right, above. NCO recombinants are thought to occur primarily by the Synthesis Dependent Strand Annealing (SDSA) model, illustrated on the left, above. Most recombination events appear to be the SDSA type.

Meiotic recombination may be initiated by double-stranded breaks that are introduced into the DNA by exposure to DNA damaging agents[3] or the Spo11 protein.[12] One or more exonucleases then digest the 5’ ends generated by the double-stranded breaks to produce 3’ single-stranded DNA tails (see diagram). The meiosis-specific recombinase Dmc1 and the general recombinase Rad51 coat the single-stranded DNA to form nucleoprotein filaments.[13] The recombinases catalyze invasion of the opposite chromatid by the single-stranded DNA from one end of the break. Next, the 3’ end of the invading DNA primes DNA synthesis, causing displacement of the complementary strand, which subsequently anneals to the single-stranded DNA generated from the other end of the initial double-stranded break. The structure that results is a cross-strand exchange, also known as a Holliday junction. The contact between two chromatids that will soon undergo crossing-over is known as a chiasma. The Holliday junction is a tetrahedral structure which can be 'pulled' by other recombinases, moving it along the four-stranded structure.

Holliday Junction 
Molecular structure of a Holliday junction. 
Molecular structure of a Holliday junction. From PDB: 3CRX​. 

MSH4 and MSH5[edit]

The MSH4 and MSH5 proteins form a hetero-oligomeric structure (heterodimer) in yeast and humans.[14][15][16] In the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae MSH4 and MSH5 act specifically to facilitate crossovers between homologous chromosomes during meiosis.[14] The MSH4/MSH5 complex binds and stabilizes double Holliday junctions and promotes their resolution into crossover products. An MSH4 hypomorphic (partially functional) mutant of S. cerevisiae showed a 30% genome wide reduction in crossover numbers, and a large number of meioses with non exchange chromosomes.[17] Nevertheless, this mutant gave rise to spore viability patterns suggesting that segregation of non-exchange chromosomes occurred efficiently. Thus in S. cerevisiae proper segregation apparently does not entirely depend on crossovers between homologous pairs.


The grasshopper Melanoplus femur-rubrum was exposed to an acute dose of X-rays during each individual stage of meiosis, and chiasma frequency was measured.[18] Irradiation during the leptotene-zygotene stages of meiosis (that is, prior to the pachytene period in which crossover recombination occurs) was found to increase subsequent chiasma frequency. Similarly, in the grasshopper Chorthippus brunneus, exposure to X-irradiation during the zygotene-early pachytene stages caused a significant increase in mean cell chiasma frequency.[19] Chiasma frequency was scored at the later diplotene-diakinesis stages of meiosis. These results suggest that X-rays induce DNA damages that are repaired by a crossover pathway leading to chiasma formation.


The difference between gene conversion and chromosomal crossover.

In most eukaryotes, a cell carries two versions of each gene, each referred to as an allele. Each parent passes on one allele to each offspring. An individual gamete inherits a complete haploid complement of alleles on chromosomes that are independently selected from each pair of chromatids lined up on the metaphase plate. Without recombination, all alleles for those genes linked together on the same chromosome would be inherited together. Meiotic recombination allows a more independent segregation between the two alleles that occupy the positions of single genes, as recombination shuffles the allele content between homologous chromosomes.

Recombination results in a new arrangement of maternal and paternal alleles on the same chromosome. Although the same genes appear in the same order, some alleles are different. In this way, it is theoretically possible to have any combination of parental alleles in an offspring, and the fact that two alleles appear together in one offspring does not have any influence on the statistical probability that another offspring will have the same combination. This principle of "independent assortment" of genes is fundamental to genetic inheritance.[20] However, the frequency of recombination is actually not the same for all gene combinations. This leads to the notion of "genetic distance", which is a measure of recombination frequency averaged over a (suitably large) sample of pedigrees. Loosely speaking, one may say that this is because recombination is greatly influenced by the proximity of one gene to another. If two genes are located close together on a chromosome, the likelihood that a recombination event will separate these two genes is less than if they were farther apart. Genetic linkage describes the tendency of genes to be inherited together as a result of their location on the same chromosome. Linkage disequilibrium describes a situation in which some combinations of genes or genetic markers occur more or less frequently in a population than would be expected from their distances apart. This concept is applied when searching for a gene that may cause a particular disease. This is done by comparing the occurrence of a specific DNA sequence with the appearance of a disease. When a high correlation between the two is found, it is likely that the appropriate gene sequence is really closer.[21]

Non-homologous crossover[edit]

Although crossovers typically occur between homologous regions of matching chromosomes, similarities in sequence can result in mismatched alignments. These processes are called unbalanced recombination. Unbalanced recombination is fairly rare compared to normal recombination, but infrequently it does happen that a gamete containing unbalanced recombinants becomes part of a zygote. The result can be a local duplication of genes on one chromosome and a deletion of these on the other, a translocation of part of one chromosome onto a different one, or an inversion.

In these cases, the effects of the non-homologous crossover may be considered as a drastic mutation, affecting many loci at the same time. In general, these mutations have negative effects for the concerned individuals, and they may lead to medical problems for humans. On the other hand, the much rarer instances when the effects are beneficial have had rather large impacts on the long range evolution. For instance, gene reduplication may make it possible for one set of the duplicated genes to develop new functionality, while the other set retains the essential older functions. Such gene exaptation has had a clear impact on the development of e. g. the human genome.

See also[edit]


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