Definition of Chromosome

A chromosome (from Greek: color and body) is a packaged and organized structure containing most of the DNA of a living organism. DNA is not usually found on its own, but rather is structured in long strands which are wrapped around protein complexes called nucleosomes, which consist of proteins called histones. The DNA in chromosomes serves as the source for transcription. Most eukaryotic cells have a set of chromosomes (46 in humans) with the genetic material spread among them.

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During most of the duration of the cell cycle, a chromosome consists of one long (its width to length ratio is about 1:65,000,000) double-helix DNA molecule (with associated proteins). During S phase, the chromosome gets replicated, resulting in an X-shaped structure called a metaphase chromosome. Both the original and the newly copied DNA are now called chromatids. The two "sister" chromatids are joined together at a protein junction called a centromere (forming the X-shaped structure). Chromosomes are normally visible under a light microscope only when the cell is undergoing mitosis (cell division). Even then, the full chromosome containing both joined sister chromatids becomes visible only during a sequence of mitosis known as metaphase (when chromosomes align together, attached to the mitotic spindle and prepare to divide). This DNA and its associated proteins and macromolecules is collectively known as chromatin, which is further packaged along with its associated molecules into a discrete structure called a nucleosome. Chromatin is present in most cells, with a few exceptions, for example, red blood cells. Occurring only in the nucleus of eukaryotic cells, chromatin composes the vast majority of all DNA, except for a small amount inherited maternally, which is found in mitochondria. In prokaryotic cells, Chromatin occurs free-floating in cytoplasm, as these cells lack organelles and a defined nucleus. Bacteria also lack histones. The main information-carrying macromolecule is a single piece of coiled double-helix DNA, containing many genes, regulatory elements and other noncoding DNA. The DNA-bound macromolecules are proteins, which serve to package the DNA and control its functions. Chromosomes vary widely between different organisms. Some species such as certain bacteria also contain plasmids or other extrachromosomal DNA. These are circular structures in the cytoplasm, which contain cellular DNA and play a role in horizontal gene transfer. Compaction of the duplicated chromosomes during cell division (mitosis or meiosis) results either in a four-arm structure (pictured above) if the centromere is located in the middle of the chromosome or a two-arm structure if the centromere is located near one of the ends. Chromosomal recombination during meiosis and subsequent sexual reproduction plays a significant role in genetic diversity. If these structures are manipulated incorrectly, through processes known as chromosomal instability and translocation, the cell may undergo mitotic catastrophe and die, or it may unexpectedly evade apoptosis leading to the progression of cancer. In prokaryotes (see nucleoids) and viruses, the DNA is often densely packed and organized: in the case of archaea, by homologs to eukaryotic histones, and in the case of bacteria, by histone-like proteins. Small circular genomes called plasmids are often found in bacteria and also in mitochondria and chloroplasts, reflecting their bacterial origins. Some authors, as in this article, use the term chromosome in a wider sense, to refer to the individualized portions of chromatin in cells, either visible or not under light microscopy. However, others use the concept in a narrower sense, to refer to the individualized portions of chromatin during cell division, visible under light microscopy due to high condensation.