Alleles are different forms of the same gene. Humans and other diploid organisms inherit two alleles of every gene, one from each parent.
An allele is recessive if its effects are masked by another allele at the same gene location. For example, pea plants can have purple or white flowers. In this case, white flowers are recessive since a single copy of the allele for purple flowers will result in a plant with purple flowers, even if they also have the allele for white flowers.
If an organism exhibits a known recessive trait, determining the organism’s genotype—its pair of inherited alleles—is simple. Only one genotype, pp (two recessive alleles), produces white flowers.
For an organism with a dominant trait—like a pea plant with purple flowers—determining genotype is not as straightforward. Two genotypes, PP and Pp, produce purple flowers.
Scientists use test crosses to determine the genotypes of organisms exhibiting simple dominant traits. A test cross involves breeding, or crossing, the organism in question with one displaying the recessive counterpart of its dominant trait.
In a test cross for a pea plant with purple flowers, the plant is bred with a pea plant that has white flowers (pp genotype). The flower color of the resulting offspring reveals whether the parent with purple flowers is homozygous (PP) or heterozygous (Pp).
If the plant is homozygous, all of the offspring will inherit one of its dominant P alleles and one of the other parent’s recessive p alleles. Since dominant alleles mask recessive alleles, all offspring will have purple flowers, the dominant trait.
If the plant is heterozygous, however, about 50% of the offspring will inherit its recessive p allele, along with another recessive allele from the other parent. Therefore, about half the offspring from this cross will have white flowers. In this way, test crosses can reveal unknown parental genotypes.
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