Genetic variation refers to differences among the genomes of members of the same species. A genome is all the hereditary information—all the genes—of an organism. For instance, the human genome contains somewhere between twenty and twenty-five thousand genes.
Genes are units of hereditary information, and they carry instructions for building proteins. The genes that are encoded within these proteins are what enable cells to function. Most organisms that reproduce sexually have two copies of each gene, because each parent cell or organism donates a single copy of its genes to its offspring. Additionally, genes can exist in slightly different forms, called alleles, which further adds to genetic variation.
The combination of alleles of a gene that an individual receives from both parents determines what biologists call the genotype for a particular trait, such as hair texture. The genotype that an individual possesses for a trait, in turn, determines the phenotype—the observable characteristics—such as whether that individual actually ends up with straight, wavy, or curly hair.
Genetic variation within a species can result from a few different sources. Mutations, the changes in the sequences of genes in DNA, are one source of genetic variation. Another source is gene flow, or the movement of genes between different groups of organisms. Finally, genetic variation can be a result of sexual reproduction, which leads to the creation of new combinations of genes.
Genetic variation in a group of organisms enables some organisms to survive better than others in the environment in which they live. Organisms of even a small population can differ strikingly in terms of how well suited they are for life in a certain environment. An example would be moths of the same species with different color wings. Moths with wings similar to the color of tree bark are better able to camouflage themselves than moths of a different color. As a result, the tree-colored moths are more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on their genes. This process is called natural selection, and it is the main force that drives evolution.