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In biology, a mutagen (Latin, literally origin of change) is a physical or chemical agent that changes the genetic material, usually DNA, of an organism and thus increases the frequency of mutations above the natural background level. As many mutations cause cancer, mutagens are typically also carcinogens. Not all mutations are caused by mutagens: so-called "spontaneous mutations" occur due to errors in DNA replication, repair and recombination.


Effects of mutations

The changes in nucleic acid sequences by mutations include substitution of nucleotide base-pairs and insertions and deletions of one or more nucleotides in DNA sequences. Although some of these mutations are lethal, or cause serious disease, many have minor effects, as the changes they cause in the sequence of encoded proteins are not significant. Many mutations cause no visible effects at all, either because they occur in introns or because they do not change the amino-acid sequence, due to redundancy of codons. On rare occasions they can create beneficial mutations, such as disease resistance, and can spur evolutionary change in a population.

Genetic drift

The change in a population’s genetic material due to the accumulation of random chance mutations is called genetic drift, and serves as a molecular clock. In general, the more nucleotide differences between two organisms, the more time has elapsed since their last common ancestor. Though it is difficult to determine in many organisms, estimates for mutation rates have been made for both E. coli and eukaryotes. It was estimated that, in these organisms, about one nucleotide in every 1010 is changed, and continues through reproduction to future generations of cells.

Discovery of mutagenesis

In the 1920s, Hermann Muller discovered that x-rays caused mutations in fruit flies. He went on to use x-rays to create Drosophila mutants that he used in his studies of genetics. He also discovered that x-rays not only mutate genes in fruit flies but also have effects on the genetic makeup of humans.[1] The first mutagens to be identified were carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances. Early physicians detected tumors in patients more than 2,000 years before the discovery of chromosomes and DNA. In 500 B.C., the Greek Hippocrates named crab-shaped tumors cancer, meaning crab.

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