Genetics 101: Introduction to Genetics Terms and Concepts for Understanding Rabbit Coat Color Genetics
A lot of jargon and terminology used in genetics can be confusing to someone who has not taken a genetics class. This article is not a complete list of every term and concept in genetics–my purpose is to give rabbit breeders and hobbyists interested in rabbit coat color genetics a basic, solid understanding of the field.
We can start this lesson with the most basic of basics. Where do the sperm and egg come from that became our favorite bunny? These cells come from the doe’s and buck’s gonads. In the doe the gonads are called ovaries and in the buck they are called the testis. The doe produces several eggs during her estrous cycle. For rabbits, this occurs every 16-18 days, provided the doe is not pregnant. Does usually become “receptive” to bucks at about 3½ months of age and are capable of conception at 4 or 4½ months.2 This is when she is in “heat.” The buck has a supply of sperm in the testis all the time and is always ready to mate.
The sperm and egg contain genetic material that when combined form the genome of their offspring. You have probably heard of the word genome by now. If you have not, you have probably been on a desert island–were you the last survivor? You could buy many rabbits with that money! With all of the cloning and genetics research being reported in the news today, the word genome might be misunderstood. Genome refers to the complete set of genes or genetic material that makes an organism unique. A gene is one of many discrete units of hereditary information located on the chromosomes and consisting of DNA. DNA is a set of nucleic acids that are usually localized in a cell’s nucleus and that form the molecular basis for heredity in most organisms. A chromosome is a long strand of DNA that is wound tightly around little ball-like proteins called histones. Each of us has our own personal genome, locked in to every cell of our bodies, that makes each of us the people that we are. The word genome can also be generically used to refer to the unique set of genes that makes all apes, apes, or that makes all rabbits, rabbits (i.e., the rabbit genome).
The Rabbit Genome
The rabbit genome contains 22 pairs of chromosomes; 21 pairs are autosomal chromosomes. That is to say, they do not determine the sex of the rabbit. The last pair is the sex chromosomes. The infamous X and Y or X and X. A doe has two X-chromosomes, and a buck has an X and a Y chromosome. If a gene is on a sex-chromosome, then the gene is a sex-linked gene. If two genes are on the same chromosome, they are called linked genes. In some species, specific traits appear in only males or in only females. The genes that control these traits are mostly likely located on the X and or Y chromosome.
In each pair of chromosomes, one comes from the buck (sire) and on comes from the doe (dam). This is where the duplicate letters come from in genetics (i.e., AA, Aa, BB, Bb, or DD, Dd). Each pair of chromosomes is known as homologous chromosomes. Each letter represents one allele for a gene from each parent. An allele is each possible form of a gene.
The homologous chromosomes are not identical! They each contain the same number of genes in the same sequence running along the strand of DNA and each has its own mutations. They’re like two parallel streets with the same number of houses. The location of the gene along the strand of DNA is called the locus, or the physical address of the gene (i.e., 432 Fairmount, 432 Haven = gene A on chromosome 1A and gene A on chromosome 1B). Each chromosome can contain different alleles for each gene. The assignment of A and B to a chromosome is random because we cannot determine which one came from which parent under a microscope. It’s like different people living in the corresponding houses on two different streets (the Jones live in 423 Fairmount and the Smiths live in 423 Haven = having an at on chromosome 1A and an A on chromosome 1B). The alleles for a gene are referred to as a series (A series = A, at, a; B series = B, b; C series = C cchd, cchl, ch, c; etc.). Therefore, if I want to talk about the alleles for the C gene, I would say, “the C series.” Later we will talk about what each letter means in relation to the coat color of the rabbit.
The Wild Type
When talking about genes, it is usually good to start with a reference. In most cases, the gene of concern is compared to the wild type. Wild type refers to the allele that is the most common in the wild for a specific gene. For rabbit coat color, this is the chestnut agouti coat color. All of the alleles for a gene arise from mutation. Radiation, chemicals, UV light, free radicals from within the cell, and many other sources can cause these mutations. With reference to the wild type and other alleles for a gene, an allele can be classified as recessive, dominant, or codominant.
The E series for rabbit coat color is an excellent example of mutations that are dominant and recessive to the wild type. The allele for the E gene that produces a steel coat is Es; this is dominant to the wild type form for the gene E. The two other alleles for the E gene, e and ej, are recessive to the wild type, E.3 A good example of codominance is found in the snapdragon. The genes for flower color have several alleles. If you cross a red flowered plant with a white flowered plant, you get offspring with pink flowers.4 The pink is not the result of a different allele, but the expression of both the white and the red alleles at the same time.
The Gene Labeling System
When genes are assigned letters to represent them, a capital letter usually indicates a dominant allele and a lowercase letter usually indicates a recessive allele. The superscript letters (Es) are used to differentiate between two dominant or two recessive alleles. Superscript letters are also used to differentiate between dominant alleles and the wild type (Ed, Es, E). Remember that the terms “recessive” and “dominant” are assigned to alleles in relation to the wild type allele. Using a system that keeps all alleles for a gene using the same letter makes it is easier to keep track of genes when doing pedigree analysis. It is true that the letter chosen for a gene is somewhat random. The genes are usually assigned in the order they were discovered. The first gene discovered for rabbit coat color was labeled A, the second one B , etc. Sometimes the letters are assigned to indicate what the gene is responsible for. For example, Du is the Dutch spotting gene or En is the English spotting gene. If you are the one that discovers a gene, you usually get the privilege of deciding the nomenclature, or name, that should be used for the gene.
It is hard enough keeping track of what an allele means–imagine if each allele were assigned a random letter or number to represent it. There would be a lot more people on the planet who were bald from pulling out their own hair! Figure 1 shows an example of the ease of comparing two rabbits, based on coat color, using the established system of using the same letter for all alleles of a gene. Figure 1 also shows how chaotic it would be, using the same two rabbits, if a random system were used. You can see that a direct comparison is much easier using the established system of naming.