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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Chimeras and Mosaics

Published September 19, 2013 10:36 AM by Michael Jones

No, I’m not talking about ancient mythology or art history. These are two phenomena that can be found inside the average person’s DNA -- sometimes completely without his or her knowledge. In genetic research, a chimera is a living thing with several populations of cells with different genetic makeup originating from conception. Mosaic, on the other hand, refers to “the presence of two populations of cells with different genotypes in one individual who has developed from a single fertilized egg.” A recent article from the New York Times discussed the possibility, probability and even instances of people with multiple, differing DNA sequences co-existing in their bodies.

The article noted on the traditional presentation of our genome. Originally, it was assumed that a person’s genome is the same regardless of whether it comes from the blood, the heart, the liver or the brain, etc. New research is examining the existence of multiple DNA strands within the same person. Characteristics like mosaicism, which come from more spontaneous mutations, were initially tracked as part of cancer clusters, but with the wider accessibility of genetic sequencing, researchers are finding these traits in more than just diseases.

“There have been whispers in the matrix about this for years, even decades, but only in a very hypothetical sense,” commented Alexander Urban, PhD, a geneticist at Stanford University, in the New York Times story.

According the New York Times piece, early cases of patients with more than one genomic structure began to emerge in the middle of the 20th century. The story noted a woman in 1953, who donated blood that possessed qualities of both Types O and A -- having “acquired some of her blood from her twin brother in the womb.” Chimerism is also a common occurrence in women who have been pregnant and subsequently taken on some of the genetic qualities of their children. The article went on, noting studies in which Y chromosomes were detected in a surprising amount of both breast and brain tissue.

As the technology to detect these characteristics becomes more common, the cases in which they occur are being documented more effectively. The New York Times discussed the possibility of scenarios in which the presence of mosaicism and chimerism can lead to both an increased susceptibility to diseases and disorders beyond being at risk for cancer and as well as the potential benefits of these traits. Despite more substantial research on the presence of multiple DNA strands in a single person’s genome recently, the trait could complicate certain areas of the field as it becomes more established. 

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