Sex Chromosome Nondisjunction in Humans


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 Photo shows a tortoiseshell cat with orange and black fur.
In cats, the gene for coat color is located on the X chromosome. In female cats’ embryonic development, one of the two X chromosomes randomly inactivates in each cell, resulting in a tortoiseshell pattern if the cat has two different alleles for coat color. Male cats, having only one X chromosome, never exhibit a tortoiseshell coat color. (credit: Michael Bodega)

OpenStax Biology 2e

Humans display dramatic deleterious effects with autosomal trisomies and monosomies. Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive that human females and males can function normally, despite carrying different numbers of the X chromosome. Rather than a gain or loss of autosomes, variations in the number of sex chromosomes occur with relatively mild effects. In part, this happens because of the molecular process X inactivation. Early in development, when female mammalian embryos consist of just a few thousand cells (relative to trillions in the newborn), one X chromosome in each cell inactivates by tightly condensing into a quiescent (dormant) structure, or a Barr body. The chance that an X chromosome (maternally or paternally derived) inactivates in each cell is random, but once this occurs, all cells derived from that one will have the same inactive X chromosome or Barr body. By this process, females compensate for their double genetic dose of X chromosome. In so-called “tortoiseshell” cats, we observe embryonic X inactivation as color variegation. Females that are heterozygous for an X-linked coat color gene will express one of two different coat colors over different regions of their body, corresponding to whichever X chromosome inactivates in that region’s embryonic cell progenitor.

An individual carrying an abnormal number of X chromosomes will inactivate all but one X chromosome in each of her cells. However, even inactivated X chromosomes continue to express a few genes, and X chromosomes must reactivate for the proper maturation of female ovaries. As a result, X-chromosomal abnormalities typically occur with mild mental and physical defects, as well as sterility. If the X chromosome is absent altogether, the individual will not develop in utero.

Scientists have identified and characterized several errors in sex chromosome number. Individuals with three X chromosomes, triplo-X, are phenotypically female but express developmental delays and reduced fertility. The XXY genotype, corresponding to one type of Klinefelter syndrome, corresponds to phenotypically male individuals with small testes, enlarged breasts, and reduced body hair. More complex types of Klinefelter syndrome exist in which the individual has as many as five X chromosomes. In all types, every X chromosome except one undergoes inactivation to compensate for the excess genetic dosage. We see this as several Barr bodies in each cell nucleus. Turner syndrome, characterized as an X0 genotype (i.e., only a single sex chromosome), corresponds to a phenotypically female individual with short stature, webbed skin in the neck region, hearing and cardiac impairments, and sterility.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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