For sexual reproduction to occur, organisms have to form gametes (in animals, gametes are eggs or sperm) with half the usual number of chromosomes, so that when two gametes fuse during fertilization the offspring will have an equal genetic contribution from each parent. This process is called meiosis: Without it, the chromosome number would double with every generation.
Meiosis includes a crucial step in which DNA is broken and either repaired by "crossing over" with another chromosome or healed without a crossover. Each pair of chromosomes must have at least one crossover for meiosis to work. New research shows that the decision to make a crossover or not is made much earlier than previously thought, and sheds light on the molecular basis of this process.
Two copies of each chromosome are present in each body cell. During meiosis, each chromosome lines up with its partner, and the DNA molecules are cut in several places. The partner chromosome DNA acts as a template to heal the breaks. This process, known as homologous recombination, can result in the exchange of chunks of DNA between chromosome arms -- a crossover. Or a break can be healed without exchanging DNA to give a non-crossover recombination.
Recombination stabilizes chromosome pairing, and crossovers are specifically required for the accurate distribution of chromosomes into the gamete cells, said Neil Hunter, assistant professor of microbiology at UC Davis. If the process fails, a gamete might end up with the wrong number of chromosomes, potentially leading to birth defects such as Down syndrome.