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For example, gametes such as the sperm or the egg are part of the germline. So are the cells that divide to produce the gametes, called gametocytes, the cells that produce those, called gametogonia, and all the way back to the zygote, the cell from which the individual developed.
Cells that are not in the germline are called somatic cells. This refers to all of the cells of body apart from the gametes. If there is a mutation or other genetic change in the germline, it can potentially be passed to offspring, but a change in a somatic cell will not be.1
Germline cells are immortal, in the sense that they have reproduced indefinitely since the beginning of life. This is largely due to the activity of the enzyme known as telomerase. This enzyme extends the telomeres of the chromosome, preventing chromosome fusions and other negative effects of shortened telomeres. Most somatic cells, by comparison, can only divide around 30-50 times according to the Hayflick limit. Certain somatic cells, known as stem cells, also express telomerase and are potentially immortal.2
At present, determining the composition of germline DNA involves extracting DNA from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) (as these cells are the least likely to have undergone transformation (genetics)). This germline DNA can then be compared with DNA from other sites (e.g. a tumour) to determine acquired somatic DNA mutationscitation needed.
Not all multicellular organisms differentiate cells into somatic and germ lines. Notably, plants have no germline cells separate from stem cellscitation needed.
Germline can refer to a lineage of cells spanning many generations of individuals—for example, the germline that links any living individual to the hypothetical first eukaryote of about 2 billion years ago, from which all plants and animals descend.
- C.Michael Hogan. 2010. Mutation. ed. E.Monosson and C.J.Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment. Washington DC
- Watt, F. M. and B. L. M. Hogan. 2000 Out of Eden: Stem Cells and Their Niches Science 287:1427-1430.