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Am J Med Genet Suppl. 1990;7:38-51.

Reflections on the pathogenesis of Down syndrome.

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  • 1Department of Medical Genetics, Shodair Children's Hospital, Helena, Montana 59604.


Present efforts to identify, isolate, and characterize in molecular terms the "consensus" segment of 21q sufficient to cause most of the major and some of the most characteristic minor manifestations of Down syndrome will soon provide answers to many questions. However, we think that a reductionist approach to explain the Down syndrome phenotype in a "linear" manner from the DNA sequence of the segment will be doomed to failure from the outset because of the open, complex, nonlinear, hierarchical nature of morphogenetic systems. Neo-Darwinism is under strong attack; most genetic changes accumulated over time may very well be of neutral effect, and detailed studies in several related groups of vertebrate species has shown that molecular and organismal evolution are largely independent of one another. It has been pointed out recently that biology lacks a theory of ontogenetic and phylogenetic development, and that a purely "genocentric" view of biology at the expense of the complexly hierarchical intrinsic epigenetic attributes of developmental systems is "out of focus with respect to ... biological organization and morphogenesis," and may be "a residue of nineteenth century romantic idealism." Down syndrome impresses us as a paradigm of increased developmental variability due to a deceleration of the rate of development (neoteny) with many anomalies of incomplete morphogenesis (vestigia), atavisms, increased morphometric variability with many decreased means, increased variances, and increased fluctuating asymmetry. These abnormalities, together with highly increased risk of prenatal death and postnatal morbidity, impaired growth, and abnormal CNS and gonadal structure and function characteristic of most aneuploidy syndromes, suggest to us that the pathogenesis of Down syndrome is best viewed in terms of the mechanisms of speciation. Transgenic experiment involving sequential or overlapping pieces of "the consensus segment" on distal 21q22.1-22.3 may help decide to what extent the Down syndrome phenotype can be resolved into the additive effect of several pleiotropic oligogenes with epistatic interaction or the indirect secondary "mass" effect of a specific segment of 21q with epistatic interaction involving multiple loci on 21q and other chromosomes.

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