I am told that mutations are heritable changes to the genome.

So this begs the question - what are non-heritable changes to genome?

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    $\begingroup$ Mutations are not necesarily heritable changes to the genome. Think of newly acquired mutations that lead to cancer. These are not heritable. Only mutations which are present in the sperm or egg cells are heritable, no matter whether these are old or newly acquired. Non-heritable changes in the genome occur anywhere else, for example in your skin after prolonged sun exposure. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Oct 30, 2014 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris "Mutations Are Heritable Changes in DNA" $\endgroup$
    – Dissenter
    Oct 30, 2014 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ The passage says mutations are changes in the DNA sequence that are passed on from one cell or organism to another. Their definition of heritable seems to be how a layman would perceive it, not necessarily how am evolutionary biologist would. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Oct 30, 2014 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ Also what is your definition of changes to the genome? Sequence changes, epigenetic changes, regulatory changes? $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Oct 30, 2014 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ Somatic mutations are "heritable" by the daughter cells of the somatic cell. It is indeed heritable in the cellular level; doesn't mean that it will always be inherited (what if the cell dies/doesn't divide) $\endgroup$
    Oct 31, 2014 at 6:03

2 Answers 2


I don't know what you really mean by "heritable changes to the genome". I think you will understand why this sentence makes no sense after reading what follows. I start with some background and then try to address directly what confuses you.

Short introduction to the concept of heritability

The concept of heritability may have two meanings.

Heritability is a concept defined at the population level for one given trait. The heritability ($h_B^2$) (in the broad sense) is the ratio of the genetic variance $V_p$ over the phenotypic variance $V_p$, where the phenotypic variance can itself be decomposed into environmental $V_e$ and genetic variance $V_g$ (and their covariance that we will neglect for the purpose of this question).

$$h_B^2 = \frac{V_{g}}{V_{p}} = \frac{V_{g}}{V_{e} + V_{g}}$$

When saying environmental variance $V_e$, we don't refer to the total variance in the environment (such as the variance in temperature for example) but we refer to the phenotypic variance (in a given population of a given trait of interest) that is caused by environmental variance. The same logic is true for the genetic variance.


While the concept of heritability applies to phenotypic traits, the concept of inheritence can apply to DNA material. A mutation is inherited if the offspring receives the sequence from his/her mother or from his/her father (assuming we are talking about a species that have sexual reproduction with 2 genders).

Somatic versus germline mutations

As pointed by @Chris in the comments. In multicellular organisms, not all mutations can be transmitted to the multicellular offspring. Most of the cells do not give rise to any other multicellular organisms. For example, imagine that while the biceps is under development at very low age, a mutation occurs that will be inherited by the daughter cells but not to the multicellular offspring. we call the line of cells that do not give rise to gametes (sperm and ovules), the soma line, by opposition to the germ line which gives rise to the gametes.

To answer your question

As soon as a given locus (position on the DNA) has some variance and that this variance explains some phenotypic variance, then the phenotypic trait it influences has a heritability greater than zero. If the variance at this locus has no effect on the phenotype, then it's heritability is zero (because $V_g = 0$, although there is some variance in the actual sequence). If the phenotypic trait of interest does not show any variance (in the population considered), then the concept of heritability is undefined for this trait!

I think you may have a confusion between "inherited trait" and "heritable trait". A mutation will necessarily be transmissible to the offspring (except if it happen to be in the somatic line in such case it will only be transmitted to daughter cells but not to the multicellular offspring) but it doesn't mean that this mutation will necessarily explain some variance in a phenotypic trait. A new much is necessarily heritable (pay attention to the soma vs germ line) but does not mean that a phenotypic will have higher heritability thanks to this mutation.

  • $\begingroup$ it's what my book tells me; "Mutations Are Heritable Changes in DNA." $\endgroup$
    – Dissenter
    Oct 30, 2014 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ See my update. Hope that will help you. I think you got messed up by the concepts of heritability and inheritance. The answer is maybe complciated I am a bit scared to have just render things even more complicated. But I hope it will help you. I've got to go now, so I cannot give you further answers today! Sorry $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Oct 30, 2014 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Dissenter yes, mutations are heritable i.e. they can be inherited but they don't necessarily get inherited since during meiosis you have processes such as independent assortment and chromosomal cross over, which means the gamete won't necessarily have the mutation of the parents! $\endgroup$ Oct 31, 2014 at 0:43

Most mutations to the DNA are heritable, but not all are inherited.

Mutations occur in the DNA, DNA is then replicated and transmitted to offspring (cells or organisms). Generally all mutations are heritable because they can be inherited, but some aren't - either by random chance (drift) or deleterious fitness effects (selection). Any mutation which makes the cell less fit has a reduced chance of being inherited, but even mutations leading to cancer are inherited at some level (from mother cancer cell to daughter cancer cells) but at some point this lineage of inheritance will stop because it will kill the host (but this is no different to species/lineages of organism going extinct - if I carried a new novel mutation but didn't have children then that mutation is not inherited).

*I suppose a mutation which stops DNA from being replicated could be classed as not-heritable because the DNA is not going to be replicated, but that depends on there being no other sources of replication machinery (other cells perhaps) - a process I don't know well enough to offer any firm conclusions on.

Non-heritable changes to the genome

DNA can be altered beyond just sequence mutation, for example methylation- but this can be used as a heritable change to the genome (genomic imprinting). Perhaps gene expression with strong environmental effects on gene expression could be considered as not heritable (because if the environment is not "inherited" then parent-offspring regression would be 0) but maybe that's a change to the transcriptome rather than genome.


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