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Definition of Mutation

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Mutation: A permanent change, a structural alteration, in the DNA or RNA. In humans and many other organisms, mutations occur in DNA. However, in retroviruses like HIV, mutations occur in RNA which is the genetic material of retroviruses.

In most cases, such changes are neutral and have no effect or they are deleterious and cause harm, but occasionally a mutation can improve an organism's chance of surviving and of passing the beneficial change on to its descendants. Mutations are the necessary raw material of evolution.

Mutations can be caused by many factors including environmental insults such as radiation and mutagenic chemicals. Mutations are sometimes attributed to random chance events.

For more information about specific kinds of mutations, see:

Reviewed on 12/12/2018

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