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Humans receive half of their DNA from each of their parents. However, this inherited DNA is not identical to the corresponding half of the parents’ genetic material. Instead, both the egg and the sperm that combine to generate an embryo carry so-called ‘germline de novo’ mutations that are not present in the rest of the parents’ cells. Although these de novo mutations are an important source of genetic diversity, they can also cause disease.
Geneticists have a longstanding interest in how, when and at what rate germline de novo mutations arise. These questions are commonly addressed by analyzing the DNA of large cohorts of two-generation families. Now, Sasani et al. have used the genetic data of 33 families in Utah, United States, which all span three generations, to determine the rate at which de novo mutations appear.
The analysis revealed that, on average, each person has around 70 de novo mutations that were not present in their parent’s genetic code. Sasani et al. also found that sperm and egg cells from older parents typically contain more de novo mutations. However, this effect varied substantially across the Utah families. In some families, an increase of one year in the parents’ age resulted in over three extra de novo mutations in their children. In others, the number of new mutations barely increased at all.
In addition, Sasani et al. found that almost 10% of de novo mutations do not occur in the parents’ sperm or eggs, but happen in the embryo very soon after fertilization. These mutations can lead to ‘mosaicism’, resulting in a person having a mutation in some, but not all of their organs and tissues. In some cases, this could cause an unknown number of sperm and egg cells to carry a mutation that others do not. This makes it hard to predict how likely two or more siblings are to inherit the mutation.
This analysis reveals that parental age affects the number of de novo mutations in children, but this effect changes from family to family. This finding could point to genetic or environmental factors that alter the human mutation rate.