Genotype versus Phenotype


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Both plates contain strains of Serratia marcescens that have the gene for red pigment. However, this gene is expressed at 28 °C (left) but not at 37 °C (right). (credit: modification of work by Ann Auman)

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

All cellular activities are encoded within a cell’s DNA. The sequence of bases within a DNA molecule represents the genetic information of the cell. Segments of DNA molecules are called genes, and individual genes contain the instructional code necessary for synthesizing various proteins, enzymes, or stable RNA molecules.

The full collection of genes that a cell contains within its genome is called its genotype. However, a cell does not express all of its genes simultaneously. Instead, it turns on (expresses) or turns off certain genes when necessary. The set of genes being expressed at any given point in time determines the cell’s activities and its observable
characteristics, referred to as its phenotype. Genes that are always expressed are known as constitutive genes; some constitutive genes are known as housekeeping genes because they are necessary for the basic functions of the cell.

While the genotype of a cell remains constant, the phenotype may change in response to environmental signals (e.g., changes in temperature or nutrient availability) that affect which nonconstitutive genes are expressed. For example, the oral bacterium Streptococcus mutans produces a sticky slime layer that allows it to adhere to teeth, forming dental plaque; however, the genes that control the production of the slime layer are only expressed in the presence of sucrose (table sugar). Thus, while the genotype of S. mutans is constant, its phenotype changes depending on the presence and absence of sugar in its environment. Temperature can also regulate gene expression. For example, the gram-negative bacterium Serratia marcescens, a pathogen frequently associated with hospital-acquired infections, produces a red pigment at 28 °C but not at 37 °C, the normal internal temperature of the human body.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: