These are caused when there are mutations or other abnormalities which disrupt the code of a gene or set of GENES. These are divided into autosomal (one of the 44 CHROMOSOMES which are not sex-linked), dominant, autosomal recessive, sex-linked and polygenic disorders.
Dominant genes A dominant characteristic is an eﬀect which is produced whenever a gene or gene defect is present. If a disease is due to a dominant gene, those aﬀected are heterozygous – that is, they only carry a fault in the gene on one of the pair of chromosomes concerned. Aﬀected people married to normal individuals transmit the gene directly to one-half of the children, although this is a random event just like tossing a coin. HUNTINGTON’S CHOREA is due to the inheritance of a dominant gene, as is neuroﬁbromatosis (see VON RECKLINGHAUSEN’S DISEASE) and familial adenomatous POLYPOSIS of the COLON. ACHONDROPLASIA is an example of a disorder in which there is a high frequency of a new dominant mutation, for the majority of aﬀected people have normal parents and siblings. However, the chances of the children of a parent with the condition being aﬀected are one in two, as with any other dominant characteristic. Other diseases inherited as dominant characteristics include spherocytosis, haemorrhagic telangiectasia and adult polycystic kidney disease.
Recessive genes If a disease is due to a recessive gene, those aﬀected must have the faulty gene on both copies of the chromosome pair (i.e. be homozygous). The possession of a single recessive gene does not result in overt disease, and the bearer usually carries this potentially unfavourable gene without knowing it. If that person marries another carrier of the same recessive gene, there is a one-in-four chance that their children will receive the gene in a double dose, and so have the disease. If an individual suﬀerer from a recessive disease marries an apparently normal person who is a heterozygous carrier of the same gene, one-half of the children will be aﬀected and the other half will be carriers of the disease. The commonest of such recessive conditions in Britain is CYSTIC FIBROSIS, which aﬀects about one child in 2,000. Approximately 5 per cent of the population carry a faulty copy of the gene. Most of the inborn errors of metabolism, such as PHENYLKETONURIA, GALACTOSAEMIA and congenital adrenal hyperplasia (see ADRENOGENITAL SYNDROME), are due to recessive genes.
There are characteristics which may be incompletely recessive – that is, neither completely dominant nor completely recessive – and the heterozygotus person, who bears the gene in a single dose, may have a slight defect whilst the homozygotus, with a double dose of the gene, has a severe illness. The sickle-cell trait is a result of the sickle-cell gene in single dose, and sickle-cell ANAEMIA is the consequence of a double dose.
Sex-linked genes If a condition is sex-linked, aﬀected males are homozygous for the mutated gene as they carry it on their single X chromosome. The X chromosome carries many genes, while the Y chromosome bears few genes, if any, other than those determining masculinity. The genes on the X chromosome of the male are thus not matched by corresponding genes on the Y chromosome, so that there is no chance of the Y chromosome neutralising any recessive trait on the X chromosome. A recessive gene can therefore produce disease, since it will not be suppressed by the normal gene of the homologous chromosome. The same recessive gene on the X chromosome of the female will be suppressed by the normal gene on the other X chromosome. Such sex-linked conditions include HAEMOPHILIA, CHRISTMAS DISEASE, DUCHENNE MUSCULAR
DYSTROPHY (see also MUSCLES, DISORDERS OF – Myopathy) and nephrogenic DIABETES INSIPIDUS.
If the mother of an aﬀected child has another male relative aﬀected, she is a heterozygote carrier; half her sons will have the disease and half her daughters will be carriers. The sister of a haemophiliac thus has a 50 per cent chance of being a carrier. An aﬀected male cannot transmit the gene to his son because the X chromosome of the son must come from the mother; all his daughters, however, will be carriers as the X chromosome for the father must be transmitted to all his daughters. Hence sex-linked recessive characteristics cannot be passed from father to son. Sporadic cases may be the result of a new mutation, in which case the mother is not the carrier and is not likely to have further aﬀected children. It is probable that one-third of haemophiliacs arise as a result of fresh mutations, and these patients will be the ﬁrst in the families to be aﬀected. Sometimes the carrier of a sex-linked recessive gene can be identiﬁed. The sex-linked variety of retinitis pigmentosa (see EYE, DISORDERS OF) can often be detected by ophthalmoscopic examination.
A few rare disorders are due to dominant genes carried on the X chromosome. An example of such a condition is familial hypophosphataemia with vitamin-D-resistant RICKETS.
Polygenic inheritance In many inherited conditions, the disease is due to the combined action of several genes; the genetic element is then called multi-factorial or polygenic. In this situation there would be an increased incidence of the disease in the families concerned, but it will not follow the Mendelian (see MENDELISM; GENETIC CODE) ratio. The greater the number of independent genes involved in determining a certain disease, the more complicated will be the pattern of inheritance. Furthermore, many inherited disorders are the result of a combination of genetic and environmental inﬂuences. DIABETES MELLITUS is the most familiar of such multi-factorial inheritance. The predisposition to develop diabetes is an inherited characteristic, although the gene is not always able to express itself: this is called incomplete penetrance. Whether or not the individual with a genetic predisposition towards the disease actually develops diabetes will also depend on environmental factors. Diabetes is more common in the relatives of diabetic patients, and even more so amongst identical twins. Non-genetic factors which are important in precipitating overt disease are obesity, excessive intake of carbohydrate foods, and pregnancy.
SCHIZOPHRENIA is another example of the combined eﬀects of genetic and environmental inﬂuences in precipitating disease. The risk of schizophrenia in a child, one of whose parents has the disease, is one in ten, but this ﬁgure is modiﬁed by the early environment of the child.