Little is known about the types and numbers of mutations that may accumulate in normal human cells with age. Such information would require obtaining enough DNA from a single cell to accurately carry out reliable analysis despite extensive amplification; and complete genomic coverage under these circumstances is difficult. We have compared colon crypts, which are putatively clonal and contain ~2000 cells each, to determine how much somatic genetic variation occurs in vivo (without ex vivo cell culturing). Using high-density SNP microarrays, we find that chromosome deletions, duplications, and gene conversions were significantly more frequent in colons from the older individuals. These changes affected lengths ranging from 73 kb to 46 Mb. Although detection requires progeny of a single mutant stem cell to reach niche dominance over neighboring stem cells, none of the deletions appear likely to confer a selective advantage. Mutations can become fixed randomly during stem cell evolution through neutral drift in normal human crypts. The fact that chromosomal changes are detected in individual crypts with increasing age suggests that either such changes accumulate with age or single stem cell dominance increases with age, and the former is more likely. This progressive genome-wide divergence of human somatic cells with age has implications for aging and disease in multicellular organisms.
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/Anatomical Society.