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How do cell mutations happen?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
The root of the problem is that the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) can get damaged. Pieces of the instructions on the genes can get knocked out or changed. When this occurs during the process of cell division, when the DNA is being copied to the new cell, a mutation occurs. If the mutation occurs in the wrong place -- in an active gene, for instance -- it can result in one of two things. It can disrupt the function of the cell, causing it to die. Or it can cause the cell to begin dividing wildly and become a cancer.

Mutations can occur in another way. Besides being the result of a mistake during cell division, mutations can also occur when the DNA in a cell is damaged by an irritant. Examples of irritants that can damage DNA are radiation, inflammation, or free radicals (unstable molecules that arise from metabolism and can damage cells). If these mutations do not kill the cell, they get passed on when the cell divides.
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