Mistakes occasionally do occur spontaneously during DNA replication, causing changes in the sequence of nucleotides. Such changes, or mutations, also can arise from radiation that causes damage to the nucleotide chain or from chemical poisons, such as those in cigarette smoke, that lead to errors during the DNA-copying process. Mutations come in various forms: a simple swap of one nucleotide for another; the deletion, insertion, or inversion of one to millions of nucleotides in the DNA of one chromosome; and translocation of a stretch of DNA from one chromosome to another.
Mutated genes that encode altered proteins or that cannot be controlled properly cause numerous inherited diseases. For example, sickle cell disease is attributable to a single nucleotide substitution in the hemoglobin gene, which encodes the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells. The single amino acid change caused by the sickle cell mutation reduces the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Recent advances in detecting disease-causing mutations and in understanding how they affect cell functions offer exciting possibilities for reducing their often devastating effects.