Bitesize has changed! We're updating subjects as fast as we can. Visit our new site to find Bitesize guides and clips - and tell us what you think!
Print

Science

Theory of Evolution

Mutations - higher only

Causes and effects

Mutations are changes that can occur in genesgenes: The basic units of genetic material inherited from our parents. A gene is a section of DNA which controls part of a cell's chemistry - particularly protein production.. These changes are random and can be caused by background radiation and chemicals that we come into contact with, for example the chemicals in cigarette smoke.

Sometimes these changes can be so severe that the cell [cell: Basic unit of life. Unicellular organisms only have one cell. Multicellular organisms have many cells. ] dies, sometimes the cell can divide uncontrollably and become cancerous, and sometimes the changes are small and the cell survives. Very rarely the changes may even be beneficial to us and produce new and useful characteristics.

Passing on mutations

If these changes occur in normal body cells, the changes are lost when we die. But if the changes occur in our sex cells such as sperm and ova, there is the possibility that the changes in the gene will be passed onto the next generation.

It is when these changes are passed on to the next generation that natural selection can either ensure that they are selected if they are useful, or disappear from the gene pool if they are not.

New species

The combined effect of these mutations, environmental changes, and natural selection, can sometimes produce changes in the organism that are so great that a new species is produced. This does not happen very often and only occurs when the mutated organism can no longer breed with the original species and is capable of producing fertile offspring.

Back to Life on Earth index

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.