In a later class you may have learned a few exceptions to that “faithful copies” bit. Sometimes, especially during development, when cells are dividing into more cells, a mutation pops up in the DNA of a daughter cell. This makes the daughter cell and all of its progeny genetically distinct. The phenomenon is called ‘somatic mosaicism’, and it tends to happen in sperm cells, egg cells, immune cells, and cancer cells. But it’s pretty infrequent and, for most healthy people, inconsequential.

That’s what the textbooks say, anyway, and it’s also a common assumption in medical research. For instance, genetic studies of living people almost always collect DNA from blood draws or cheek swabs, even if investigating the tangled roots of, say, heart disease or diabetes or autism. The assumption is that whatever genetic blips show up in blood or saliva will recapitulate what’s in the (far less accessible) cells of the heart, pancreas, or brain.

Two recent reports suggest that somatic mosaicism is far more common than anybody ever realized — and that might be a good thing.

In the first study Michael Snyder and colleagues looked at cells in 11 different organs and tissues obtained from routine autopsies of six unrelated people who had not died of cancer or any hereditary disease.

Then the scientists screened each tissue for small deletions or duplications of DNA, called copy number variations, or CNVs. These are fairly common in all of us.