Reviewed June 2008
What is chromosome 21?
Humans normally have 46 chromosomes in each cell, divided into 23 pairs. Two copies of chromosome 21, one copy inherited from each parent, form one of the pairs. Chromosome 21 is the smallest human chromosome, spanning about 47 million base pairs (the building blocks of DNA) and representing approximately 1.5 percent of the total DNA in cells.
In 2000, researchers working on the Human Genome Project announced that they had determined the sequence of base pairs that make up this chromosome. Chromosome 21 was the second human chromosome to be fully sequenced.
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. Chromosome 21 likely contains between 300 and 400 genes.
Genes on chromosome 21 are among the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 total genes in the human genome.
There are many genetic conditions related to genes on chromosome 21.
What chromosomal conditions are related to chromosome 21?
The following conditions are caused by changes in the structure or number of copies of chromosome 21.
Rearrangements (translocations) of genetic material between chromosome 21 and other chromosomes have been associated with several types of cancer. For example, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (a type of blood cancer most often diagnosed in childhood) has been associated with a translocation between chromosomes 12 and 21. Another form of leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, has been associated with a translocation between chromosomes 8 and 21.
Down syndrome is most often caused by trisomy 21. Trisomy 21 means that each cell in the body has three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two copies. Down syndrome can also result from an extra copy of chromosome 21 in only some of the body's cells (mosaic Down syndrome).
In a small percentage of cases, Down syndrome occurs when part of chromosome 21 becomes attached (translocated) to another chromosome during the formation of reproductive cells (eggs and sperm) or very early in fetal development. Affected people have two copies of chromosome 21, plus extra material from chromosome 21 attached to another chromosome. Affected individuals with this genetic change are said to have translocation Down syndrome.
Researchers believe that extra copies of some genes on chromosome 21 disrupt the course of normal development, causing the characteristic features of Down syndrome and the increased risk of medical problems associated with this disorder.
- other chromosomal conditions
Other changes in the number or structure of chromosome 21 have a variety of effects on health and development. Chromosome 21 abnormalities can cause intellectual disability, delayed development, and characteristic facial features. In some cases, the signs and symptoms are similar to those of Down syndrome. Changes to chromosome 21 include a missing segment of the chromosome in each cell (partial monosomy 21) and a circular structure called ring chromosome 21. A ring chromosome occurs when a chromosome breaks in two places and the ends of the chromosome arms fuse together to form a circular structure.
Is there a standard way to diagram chromosome 21?
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 chromosome 21?
You may find the following resources about chromosome 21 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 chromosome 21?
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.