Polyploidy refers to a numerical change in a whole set of chromosomes. Organisms in which a particular chromosome, or chromosome segment, is under- or overrepresented are said to be aneuploid (from the Greek words meaning "not", "good", and "fold"). Aneuploidy refers to a numerical change in part of the chromosome set, whereas polyploidy refers to a numerical change in the whole set of chromosomes.
Polyploidy may occur due to abnormal cell division, either during mitosis, or commonly during metaphase I in meiosis. In addition, it can be induced in plants and cell cultures by some chemicals: the best known is colchicine, which can result in chromosome doubling, though its use may have other less obvious consequences as well. Oryzalin will also double the existing chromosome content.
Polyploidy occurs in highly differentiated human tissues in the liver, heart muscle and bone marrow. It occurs in the somatic cells of some animals, such as goldfish, salmon, and salamanders, but is especially common among ferns and flowering plants (see Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), including both wild and cultivated species. Wheat, for example, after millennia of hybridization and modification by humans, has strains that are diploid (two sets of chromosomes), tetraploid (four sets of chromosomes) with the common name of durum or macaroni wheat, and hexaploid (six sets of chromosomes) with the common name of bread wheat. Many agriculturally important plants of the genus Brassica are also tetraploids.
Polyploidization is a mechanism of sympatric speciation because polyploids are usually unable to interbreed with their diploid ancestors. An example is the plant Erythranthe peregrina. Sequencing confirmed that this species originated from E. x robertsii, a sterile triploid hybrid between E. guttata and E. lutea, both of which have been introduced and naturalised in the United Kingdom. New populations of E. peregrina arose on the Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands via genome duplication from local populations of E. x robertsii. Because of a rare genetic mutation, E. peregrina is not sterile.