Not long ago, researchers had thought it was rare for the cells in a single healthy person to differ genetically in a significant way. But scientists are finding that it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes. Some people, for example, have groups of cells with mutations that are not found in the rest of the body. Some have genomes that came from other people.
For example, Alexander Urban, a geneticist at Stanford University, and his colleagues investigated mutations in cells called fibroblasts, which are found in connective tissue. They searched in particular for cases in which a segment of DNA was accidentally duplicated or deleted. As they reported last year, 30 percent of the fibroblasts carried at least one such mutation.
Michael Snyder of Stanford University and his colleagues searched for mosaicism by performing autopsies on six people who had died of causes other than cancer. In five of the six people they autopsied, the scientists reported last October, they found cells in different organs with stretches of DNA that had accidentally been duplicated or deleted.
Now that scientists are beginning to appreciate how common chimerism and mosaicism are, they’re investigating the effects of these conditions on our health.