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Can a change in the number of genes affect health and development?

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People have two copies of most genes, one copy inherited from each parent. In some cases, however, the number of copies varies—meaning that a person can be born with one, three, or more copies of particular genes. Less commonly, one or more genes may be entirely missing. This type of genetic difference is known as copy number variation (CNV).

Copy number variation results from insertions, deletions, and duplications of large segments of DNA. These segments are big enough to include whole genes. Variation in gene copy number can influence the activity of genes and ultimately affect many body functions.

Researchers were surprised to learn that copy number variation accounts for a significant amount of genetic difference between people. More than 10 percent of human DNA appears to contain these differences in gene copy number. While much of this variation does not affect health or development, some differences likely influence a person’s risk of disease and response to certain drugs. Future research will focus on the consequences of copy number variation in different parts of the genome and study the contribution of these variations to many types of disease.

For more information about copy number variation:

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute discusses the results of recent research on copy number variation in the news release, Genetic Variation: We’re More Different Than We ThoughtThis link leads to a site outside Genetics Home Reference..

For people interested in more technical data, several institutions provide databases of structural differences in human DNA, including copy number variation:

Next: Can changes in the number of chromosomes affect health and development?

Published: February 18, 2013