By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the behavior of chromosomes during meiosis
- Describe cellular events during meiosis
- Explain the differences between meiosis and mitosis
- Explain the mechanisms within meiosis that generate genetic variation among the products of meiosis
Sexual reproduction requires fertilization, a union of two cells from two individual organisms. If those two cells each contain one set of chromosomes, then the resulting cell contains two sets of chromosomes. The number of sets of chromosomes in a cell is called its ploidy level. Haploid cells contain one set of chromosomes. Cells containing two sets of chromosomes are called diploid. If the reproductive cycle is to continue, the diploid cell must somehow reduce its number of chromosome sets before fertilization can occur again, or there will be a continual doubling in the number of chromosome sets in every generation. So, in addition to fertilization, sexual reproduction includes a nuclear division, known as meiosis, that reduces the number of chromosome sets.
Most animals and plants are diploid, containing two sets of chromosomes; in each somatic cell (the nonreproductive cells of a multicellular organism), the nucleus contains two copies of each chromosome that are referred to as homologous chromosomes. Somatic cells are sometimes referred to as “body” cells. Homologous chromosomes are matched pairs containing genes for the same traits in identical locations along their length. Diploid organisms inherit one copy of each homologous chromosome from each parent; all together, they are considered a full set of chromosomes. In animals, haploid cells containing a single copy of each homologous chromosome are found only within gametes. Gametes fuse with another haploid gamete to produce a diploid cell.
The nuclear division that forms haploid cells, which is called meiosis, is related to mitosis. As you have learned, mitosis is part of a cell reproduction cycle that results in identical daughter nuclei that are also genetically identical to the original parent nucleus. In mitosis, both the parent and the daughter nuclei contain the same number of chromosome sets—diploid for most plants and animals. Meiosis employs many of the same mechanisms as mitosis. However, the starting nucleus is always diploid and the nuclei that result at the end of a meiotic cell division are haploid. To achieve the reduction in chromosome number, meiosis consists of one round of chromosome duplication and two rounds of nuclear division. Because the events that occur during each of the division stages are analogous to the events of mitosis, the same stage names are assigned. However, because there are two rounds of division, the stages are designated with a “I” or “II.” Thus, meiosis I is the first round of meiotic division and consists of prophase I, prometaphase I, and so on. Meiosis I reduces the number of chromosome sets from two to one. The genetic information is also mixed during this division to create unique recombinant chromosomes. Meiosis II, in which the second round of meiotic division takes place in a way that is similar to mitosis, includes prophase II, prometaphase II, and so on.