chromosome (krōˈməsōmˌ) [key], structural carrier of hereditary characteristics, found in the nucleus of every cell and so named for its readiness to absorb dyes. The term chromosome is usually reserved for the structure when it is condensed and readily visible during cell division (see mitosis). At other times the chromosome appears as a fibrous structure, called the chromonema, consisting of accumulations (called chromomeres) of chromatin, the dye-absorbing material. During nuclear division, when each chromosome splits, each of the duplicate chromosomes is called a chromatid. A certain number of chromosomes is characteristic of each species of plant and animal; e.g., the human has 46 chromosomes, the potato has 48, and the fruit fly Drosophila has 8. Each of these chromosome numbers is the so-called diploid number, i.e., the number found in the somatic (body) cells and in the germ cells that give rise to the gametes, or reproductive cells. When the germ cells divide in the two-step process of meiosis, the chromosomes are separated in such a way that each daughter cell receives a haploid (half the diploid) number of chromosomes. Fusion of the male and female gametes in fertilization restores the diploid number in the fertilized egg, or zygote, which thus contains two sets of homologous chromosomes, one from each parent. The principal constituents of the chromosomes are nucleoproteins containing deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA (see nucleic acid). Chromosomes appear microscopically as a linear arrangement of genes, the factors that determine the inherited characteristics of all living organisms. The very large chromosomes in the salivary gland cells of Drosophila and other insects have furnished valuable material for the study of genetics.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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