Reviewed November 2008
What is the X chromosome?
The X chromosome is one of the two sex chromosomes in humans (the other is the Y chromosome). The sex chromosomes form one of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes in each cell. The X chromosome spans about 155 million base pairs (the building blocks of DNA) and represents approximately 5 percent of the total DNA in cells.
Each person normally has one pair of sex chromosomes in each cell. Females have two X chromosomes, while males have one X and one Y chromosome. Early in embryonic development in females, one of the two X chromosomes is randomly and permanently inactivated in somatic cells (cells other than egg and sperm cells). This phenomenon is called X-inactivation or Lyonization. X-inactivation ensures that females, like males, have one functional copy of the X chromosome in each body cell. Because X-inactivation is random, in normal females the X chromosome inherited from the mother is active in some cells, and the X chromosome inherited from the father is active in other cells.
Some genes on the X chromosome escape X-inactivation. These genes are located at the tip of the short (p) arm of the X chromosome in an area known as the pseudoautosomal region. Although many genes are unique to the X or Y chromosome, genes in the pseudoautosomal region are present on both chromosomes. As a result, men and women each have two functional copies of these genes. Many genes in the pseudoautosomal region are essential for normal development.
Identifying genes on each chromosome is an active area of genetic research. Because researchers use different approaches to predict the number of genes on each chromosome, the estimated number of genes varies. The X chromosome likely contains between 900 and 1,400 genes.
Genes on the X chromosome are among the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 total genes in the human genome.
There are many genetic conditions related to genes on the X chromosome.
What chromosomal conditions are related to the X chromosome?
The following conditions are caused by changes in the structure or number of copies of the X chromosome.
Klinefelter syndrome is caused by the presence of one or more extra copies of the X chromosome in a male's cells. Extra genetic material from the X chromosome interferes with male sexual development, preventing the testes from functioning normally and reducing the levels of testosterone (a hormone that directs male sexual development).
Typically, males with Klinefelter syndrome have one extra copy of the X chromosome in each cell, for a total of two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome (47,XXY). Less commonly, affected males may have two or three extra X chromosomes (48,XXXY or 49,XXXXY) or extra copies of both the X and Y chromosomes (48,XXYY). In males with more than one additional X chromosome, the extra genetic material may lead to intellectual disability and other medical problems.
Some males with Klinefelter syndrome have the extra X chromosome in only some of their cells; in these individuals, the condition is described as mosaic Klinefelter syndrome (46,XY/47,XXY).
triple X syndrome
Triple X syndrome (also called 47,XXX or trisomy X) results from an extra copy of the X chromosome in each of a female's cells. Females with triple X syndrome have three X chromosomes, for a total of 47 chromosomes per cell. It is unclear why an extra copy of the X chromosome is associated with tall stature and learning problems in some girls and women.
Some females with triple X syndrome have an extra X chromosome in only some of their cells. This phenomenon is called 46,XX/47,XXX mosaicism.
Females with more than one extra copy of the X chromosome (48,XXXX or 49,XXXXX) have been identified, but these chromosomal changes are rare. The extra genetic material may lead to intellectual disability and other medical problems.
Turner syndrome results when one normal X chromosome is present in a female's cells and the other sex chromosome is missing or structurally altered. The missing genetic material affects development before and after birth, leading to short stature, ovarian malfunction, and the other features of Turner syndrome.
About half of individuals with Turner syndrome have monosomy X (45,X), which means each cell in an individual's body has only one copy of the X chromosome instead of the usual two sex chromosomes. Turner syndrome can also occur if one of the sex chromosomes is partially missing or rearranged rather than completely absent.
Some women with Turner syndrome have a chromosomal change in only some of their cells, which is known as mosaicism. Some cells have the usual two sex chromosomes (either two X chromosomes or one X chromosome and one Y chromosome), and other cells have only one copy of the X chromosome. Women with Turner syndrome caused by X chromosome mosaicism (45,X/46,XX or 45,X/46,XY) are said to have mosaic Turner syndrome.
Researchers have not determined which genes on the X chromosome are responsible for most of the features of Turner syndrome. They have, however, identified one gene called SHOX that is important for bone development and growth. The SHOX gene is located in the pseudoautosomal region of the X chromosome. Missing one copy of this gene likely causes short stature and skeletal abnormalities in women with Turner syndrome.
46,XX testicular disorder of sex development
In most individuals with 46,XX testicular disorder of sex development, the condition results from an abnormal exchange of genetic material between chromosomes (translocation). This exchange occurs as a random event during the formation of sperm cells in the affected person's father. The translocation affects the gene responsible for development of a fetus into a male (the SRY gene). The SRY gene, which is normally found on the Y chromosome, is misplaced in this disorder, almost always onto an X chromosome. A fetus with an X chromosome that carries the SRY gene will develop as a male despite not having a Y chromosome.
- other chromosomal conditions
Chromosomal conditions involving the sex chromosomes often affect sex determination (whether a person has the sexual characteristics of a male or a female), sexual development, and the ability to have children (fertility). The signs and symptoms of these conditions vary widely and range from mild to severe. They can be caused by missing or extra copies of the sex chromosomes or by structural changes in the chromosomes.
Is there a standard way to diagram the X chromosome?
Geneticists use diagrams called ideograms as a standard representation for chromosomes. Ideograms show a chromosome's relative size and its banding pattern. A banding pattern is the characteristic pattern of dark and light bands that appears when a chromosome is stained with a chemical solution and then viewed under a microscope. These bands are used to describe the location of genes on each chromosome.
Where can I find additional information about the X chromosome?
You may find the following resources about the X chromosome helpful. These materials are written for the general public.
You may also be interested in these resources, which are designed for genetics professionals and researchers.
Where can I find general information about chromosomes?
The Handbook provides basic information about genetics in clear language.
These links provide additional genetics resources that may be useful.
What glossary definitions help with understanding the X chromosome?
The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for
professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about
a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified
See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.