Skip to main content




Karyotype refers to the arrangement of chromosomes in their matched (homologous) pairs. For the purposes of this definition, we will be referring to human chromosomes, although there is a karyotype characteristic for each species. The human chromosomes are arranged and numbered according to the International System for Human Cytogenetic Nomenclature (ISCN). The most recent recommendations of the ISCN are from 1995. Karyotype either refers to the actual composition of the chromosomes in a body cell of an individual or species, or to the actual diagram or photograph of those chromosomes, arranged in their pairs.


The normal human karyotype consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes. There are 22 pair of autosomes, which are the chromosomes that are not the sex chromosomes. The genes on these chromosomes instruct our bodies as to how they look and function. The 23rd pair of chromosomes are the sex chromosomes. Typically, females have two X sex chromosomes and males have one X sex chromosome and one Y sex chromosome.

Karyotype construction

In the construction of the karyotype, the chromosomes are numbered 1 to 22 from longest to shortest. The last pair are the sex chromosomes and are placed on the karyotype after the 22nd pair. The chromosomes can be separated into groups, based on their length and the position of the centromere. Group A consists of chromosome pairs 1, 2 and 3. They are the longest chromosomes and their centromeres are in the center of the chromosomes (metacentric). Group B consists of chromosome pairs 4 and 5. They are long; however, their centromeres lie toward the top of the chromosomes (submetacentric). Group C consists of chromosome pairs 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 and also includes the X chromosome. They are medium-sized and their centromeres either lie in the middle or toward the top of the chromosomes. Group D consists of chromosome pairs 13,14 and 15. They are medium-sized and their centromeres lie at the top of the chromosomes (acrocentric). Additionally, the D group chromosomes have satellites. Group E consists of chromosome pairs 16, 17 and 18. They are relatively short chromosomes and their centromeres lie in the center or towards the top of the chromosomes. Group F consists of chromosomes 19 and 20. They are short chromosomes with centromeres that lie in the center of the chromosome. Lastly, group G consists of chromosome pairs 21, 22 and the Y chromosome. These are short chromosomes with their centromeres at the top. Chromosome pairs 21 and 22 have satellites. The Y chromosome does not have satellites.

The actual chromosomes are only individually distinguishable during a certain stage of cell division. This stage is called the metaphase stage. Chromosome preparations are made from pictures of the chromosomes during the metaphase stage of division. The metaphase spread is what the technician sees in one cell under the microscope and what the photograph of that one cell is referred to. Usually, the chromosomes in a metaphase preparation are banded by special staining techniques used in the laboratory. Each numbered chromosome is unique in its banding pattern so that all number 1s look the same and all number 2s look the same, etc. Although, there can be small normal familial variations in chromosomes. Because of banding, the chromosomes are more easily distinguishable from each other and the banding makes it is easier to see differences or abnormalities. For example, if a chromosome is missing a piece, or two chromosomes are attached to each other (translocation), it is much easier to see with banded chromosomes than with unbanded chromosomes.

Chromosome preparations can be made from any potentially dividing cells, including; blood cells, skin cells, amniotic fluid cells (the fluid surrounding an unborn baby), placental tissue or chorionic villi (tissue that forms the placenta and can be used in prenatal diagnosis).

ISCN formulas exist to describe any chromosome complement. The basic formula for writing a karyotype is as follows. The first item written is the total number of chromosomes, followed by a comma. The the second item written is the sex chromosome complement. The typical female karyotype is written as 46,XX and the typical male karyotype is written as 46,XY.

Formulas for abnormal karyotypes

Many formulas for writing abnormal karyotypes have been determined. Some common examples follow. A plus or a minus sign before a chromosome number is used to show that the entire chromosome is extra or missing. Also, the total number of chromosomes will be different than 46. For example, the condition Down syndrome occurs when an individual has an extra number 21 chromosome. For a male, this karyotype is written as 47,XY,+21. An individual may also have extra or missing parts of chromosomes. The short arm of a chromosome is called the p arm and the long arm is called the q arm. For example, the condition Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome is caused by a missing part of the top arm of chromosome 4. For a female, this karyotype would be written as 46,XX,del(4)(p16). The chromosome that is involved in the change is specified within the first set of parentheses and the breakpoint for the missing material is defined in the second set of parentheses. A final example is a balanced translocation karyotype. A balanced translocation means that there is no missing or extra genetic material as the result of the translocation. There are many types of translocations. One type is called a robertsonian translocation. A robertsonian translocation occurs when two acrocentric chromosomes are attached together. One common example is a translocation involving chromosomes 13 and 14. If a male has a balanced robertsonian translocation of chromosomes 13 and 14, this is written as 45,XY,der(13;14). The "der" stands for derivative, as the new 13;14 chromosome is considered a derivative. There are only 45 separate chromosomes now, which is why 45 is the number written in the karyotype. There are many more formulas for the abundant abnormal chromosome findings in individuals. For further detailed information, please refer to the resource listed below.



Mitelman, Felix, ed. An International System for HumanCytogenetic Nomenclature (1995). Farmington, CT: S. Karger AG, 1995.

Renee A. Laux, MS

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Karyotype." Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders. . 17 Oct. 2018 <>.

"Karyotype." Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders. . (October 17, 2018).

"Karyotype." Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.