Genetic Conditions and Inheritance

Original Editor - Anna Fuhrmann Top Contributors - Anna Fuhrmann and Kim Jackson


Genetic conditions are diseases or disabilities that are caused by inherited or acquired abnormalities in the sequencing of the genome. They can originate from mutations of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of single or multiple genes up to full chromosomal changes.[1] Genetic conditions that are developed by the modification of one single gene are called monogenic diseases.[2] The WHO estimates that there are around 10,000 human monogenic diseases which affect millions of people worldwide.

Heredity or genetic inheritance is the process of passing off trades or characteristics from parents to their offspring, the related scientific field is referred to as the study of genetics.[3] Traits get inherited through genes. These are sections of the DNA molecule that hold all information needed to for an organism to build new cells.


Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was a scientist and monk from the Austrian Empire (today's Czech Republic) and is referred to as "the founder of the science of modern genetics".[4] His scientific experiments, which he conducted during his life in the monastery using pea plants, led him to construct the theory of inheritance of trades. Mendel was the first person to identify and prove the correct hypothesis of genetic inheritance of characteristics through "recessive" and "dominant" trades, which are both terms that he coined. He published his findings in 1865 but only gained posthumous recognition for the relevance of his work.

Genetic inheritance / Heredity

This chapter will capture the basics about genetic inheritance. For a great introduction and visualisation about this topic see the YouTube video by the Crash Course brothers below.



Traits - or characteristics - are observable details of an organism, e.g. in humans: one's eye colour, the shape of one's finger nails, ...

  • Mendelian trait: A characteristic or trait that is determined by one gene only.[5] This means that a specific characteristic's information is found on only one of the 23 chromosome pairs that a human DNA. Therefore, the information about this particular characteristic is linked to one specific location within the DNA. The typical example is the colour of pea plant flowers, which was the trait that Mendel examined in his experiments.
  • Polygenic trait: A characteristic or trait that is a composition of information from different genes, ergo not tied to one single location within the DNA. Most traits, since they are quite elaborate, are polygenic traits.
  • Pleiotropic: A gene that influences how other genes are interpreted.

To best comprehend the pathway of genetic inheritance most commonly examples of Mendelian traits are used, since the observed trait is determined by one single gene.


Chromosomes are the strings made of the DNA. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, each pair containing one set of genetic information from the mother and one from the father. Every cell in the human body holds 23 chromosome pairs, except for reproductive cells which only contain 23 single chromosome strings.[5]


Genes are the "basic physical unit of inheritance"[6] and are made of sequences within the DNA. They hold information about any type of process needed to grow, maintain and renew an organism's traits. The 23 chromosome pairs of humans hold around 20,000 genes.


Humans have two sets of each genes, one in each of the chromosomes.[2] A pair of genes is called an allele. These genes do not necessarily need to be the same since one of them is inherited from the mother and the other one from the father.


The genotype is the composition of the two parentally inherited alleles. [3]

  • Heterozygous: Genotype has two alleles that are different.
  • Homozygous: Genotype has two alleles that are alike.


The phenotype is defined as "the set of characteristics of a living thing, resulting from its combination of genes and the effect of its environment"[7] hence the 'final result' of the composition of parentally inherited and environmentally acquired information.

Genetic inheritance pathways

Genetic abnormalities can be inherited through different pathways, depending on the location and type of the affected gene. The three types of inheritance for monogenic (single-gene) diseases are[2]:

  • Dominant [see Image 1]

When inheriting a dominant allele from one parent, this trait is the one displayed in the phenotype. A dominant allele always prevails when combined with a recessive allele.

  • Recessive [see Image 2]

When inheriting a recessive allele the trait is displayed in the phenotype not if it is combined with a dominant allele. The recessive trait is only activated if both alleles are recessive and no dominant allele of this gene is present.

Image 2: Autosomal recessive inheritance of an affected gene (example of cystic fibrosis)[8]
Image 1: Autosomal dominant inheritance of an affected gene from the father [9]
  • X-linked

The inheritance of an X-linked allele can be both dominant [see Image 3] and recessive [see Image 4].

Image 4: X-linked recessive inheritance of an affected gene from the mother[10]
Image 3: X-linked dominant allele, inheritance of an affected gene of the mother[11]

The Punnet Square

The Punnet Square can be used to determine the possible outcomes of traits being transferred from the parents to the offspring. An example can be found in Image 2 on the right side, which shows the probability of inheriting cystic fibrosis from two parents both carrying a recessive allele for the disease.


Newborn genetic screening is a standard procedure for most babies which is conducted right after birth in many countries.[12] It helps to identify genetic disorders at an early stage so that prevention and treatment methods can set in from the very beginning. In other cases, diagnosis includes physical examination, personal and family medical history, and laboratory testing including genetic testing[13].

Clinical relevance

Most common disorders

Monogenic diseases[2]:

Polygenic conditions[14]:


  • Down Syndrome/ Trisomy 21 (caused by an extra chromosome on the 21st chromosome pair)
  • Edward's Syndrome/ Trisomy 18 (caused by an extra chromosome on the 18th chromosome pair)

Disorders most relevant for physiotherapy practice

Apart from the diseases listed above, there are a few more conditions that are of special interest for physiotherapy practice.


The treatment of conditions arising from genetic abnormalities are as variant as the conditions can be. They depend very much on the area of the body that is affected by the disease. To see specifics about physiotherapy treatment of common genetic conditions, please check the above listed diseases for further information.

Useful links & further information

More extensive information about common genetic diseases can be found on the Physiopedia page Congenital and Acquired Neuromuscular and Genetic Disorders.

More details about types of genetic changes and diseases that fall under those categories can be found on the page of Stanford Children's Health.

For more information about genetic and rare diseases and an A-Z list of those diseases follow this link.

Extensive information about diagnosis of and testing for genetic diseases can be found in Understanding Genetics: A District of Columbia Guide for Patients and Health Professionals by the Genetic Alliance and the District of Columbia Department of Health which can be found here.

An explorative, short article about "Genomic medicine and the future of physiotherapy" by Jon Cornwall and Peter Osmotherly from 2014 can be found here.


  1. Genetic Disorders. University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Centre. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Genes and human diseases. WHO. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Genetic inheritance. Basic Biology 2020. Available from: (accessed 3 November 2020).
  4. Gregor Mendel. Wikipedia. Available from: (accessed 3 November 2020).
  5. 5.0 5.1 Heredity: Crash Course Biology #9. Crash Course (YouTube Channel). Available from: (accessed 3 November 2020).
  6. Gene. National Human Genome Research Institute. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  7. Phenotype. Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. Available from: (accessed 3 November 2020).
  8. Taken from: Wikimedia commons. File:X dominant affected mother.svg. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  9. Taken from: Wikimedia commons. File:X dominant affected mother.svg. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  10. Taken from: Wikimedia commons. File:X dominant affected mother.svg. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  11. Taken from: Wikimedia commons. File:X dominant affected mother.svg. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  12. What is Newborn Genetic Screening? Genetics Science Learning Centre University of Utah. Available from: (accessed 5 November 2020).
  13. How are genetic conditions diagnosed? NIH Medline Plus. Available from: (accessed 11 November 2020).
  14. Poligenic disease. Biology Online. Available from: (accessed 11 November 2020).