Ask A Scientist

Has a wild animal ever had a mutation? 

Asked by: Samantha Palmer
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Karate, field hockey and piano
Career Interest: Lawyer or interior designer

Answer from Tom Giardina

PhD Candidate in Biological Sciences, Binghamton University

Research area: Evolutionary Genetics
Family: Married with 1 year old daughter
Interests/hobbies: Reading, playing games and spending time with family  

You bet! When biologists talk about ‘mutations,’ we aren’t referring to hapless turtles spontaneously morphing into crime-fighting ninjas. A mutation is simply any permanent change in an organism’s DNA. The cells of all living things have DNA. DNA contains the instructions your body needs to make you who you are, and to keep everything running smoothly. It’s like a blueprint for making a living thing, and a copy of your DNA exists in almost all of your cells. That’s another important feature of DNA: it copies itself. Whenever your body makes new cells, your DNA blueprint is copied into them. This copying is also important because it allows parents’ DNA to combine to create a child.  But there’s a problem. DNA doesn’t always copy itself perfectly. Sometimes it makes a mistake. Or maybe the DNA becomes damaged somehow, and isn’t repaired correctly.  When that happens, suddenly your DNA has changed. The blueprint has been altered. A mutation has taken place!  This is happening all the time, to all living things. You start life with a couple of mutations, and as you grow older you continually accumulate more. If you can, you want to limit the number of mutations you pick up. Mutations are random. They could help you, or hurt you, or have no noticeable effect. If there is an effect though, it’s almost certainly going to be bad. You might not always feel like it, but you’re a well-oiled machine. For you to be healthy, a million things need to be going right. Mutations make random changes to your machine. It’s possible that a new part will work better than the old stuff, but it’s much more likely to create a problem. For this reason, you want to avoid agents that cause mutations, like cigarette smoke or excessive UV radiation. Mutation isn’t totally bad, though. If DNA always copied itself perfectly, the world would be full of exact duplicates of the very first cell. Mutations shake things up, and make individuals different from each other. Even if most of those new changes don’t work well, some may be beneficial. They might allow an organism to survive better, or adapt to a new environment. Such a mutation can spread and become more common. Ultimately, mutations give life the ability to change. If wild animals never had mutations, the world would be a much more boring place.

Last Updated: 3/1/17