Unit of heredity that occupies a fixed position on a chromosome. Genes achieve their effects by directing protein synthesis. They are composed of DNA, except in some viruses that contain RNA instead. The sequence of nitrogenous bases along a strand of DNA determines the genetic code. When the product of a particular gene is needed, the portion of the DNA molecule that contains that gene splits, and a complementary strand of RNA, called messenger RNA (mRNA), forms and then passes to ribosomes, where proteins are synthesized. A second type of RNA, transfer RNA (tRNA), matches up the mRNA with specific amino acids, which combine in series to form polypeptide chains, the building blocks of proteins. Experiments have shown that many of the genes within a cell are inactive much or even all of the time, but they can be switched on and off. Mutations occur when the number or order of bases in a gene is disrupted. See also genetic engineering, genetics, Hardy-Weinberg law, Human Genome Project, linkage group.

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