AskDefine | Define twins

Dictionary Definition



1 (mineralogy) two interwoven crystals that are mirror images on each other
2 the third sign of the zodiac; the sun is in this sign from about May 21 to June 20 [syn: Gemini, Gemini the Twins]

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see Twins



  1. plural of twin
    We could never differentiate between the twins
  2. breasts
    Check out that girl's twins!

Extensive Definition

Twins are two offspring resulting from the same pregnancy, either of the same or opposite sex.
The general term for more than one offspring from the same pregnancy is multiples, for example triplets refers to cases of three offspring from the same pregnancy. A fetus alone in the womb is called a singleton.
Twins are usually, but not necessarily, born in close succession. Due to the limited size of the mother's womb, multiple pregnancies are much less likely to carry to full term than singleton births, with twin pregnancies lasting only 37 weeks on average, 3 weeks less than full term. Since premature births can have health consequences for the babies, twin births are often handled with special precautions.
Twins can either be monozygotic (MZ, colloquially, "identical") or dizygotic (DZ, colloquially, "fraternal"). There are estimated to be approximately 125 million human twins and triplets in the world (roughly 1.9% of the world population), and just 10 million monozygotic twins (roughly 0.2% of the world population and 8% of all twins). The current rate in the United States is 31 twin births per 1,000 women.

Types of twins

There are five common variations of twinning. The three most common variations are all dizygotic: (1) male-female twins are the most common result, at about 40 percent of all twins born; (2) female DZ twins (sometimes called sororal twins); (3) male DZ twins. The other variations are monozygotic twins: (4) female MZ twins and (5) (least common) male MZ twins. Male singletons are slightly (about five percent) more common than female singletons. (6) There is also the mirror image variations. This is where the twins develop reverse asymmetric features. About 25% of monozygotic twins are mirror image twins.The rates for singletons vary slightly by country as shown in the CIA World Factbook . For example, the sex ratio at birth in the US is 1.05 males/female, while it is 1.07 males/female in Italy. However, males are also more susceptible than females to death in utero, and since the death rate in utero is higher for twins, it leads to female twins being more common than male twins.
Another variety of twins, "polar body twins," (one egg fertilized by two different sperm) is a phenomenon that was hypothesized to occur and may recently have been proven, very rarely, to exist. Polar body twinning would result in "half-identical" twins.

Dizygotic twins

Dizygotic twins (commonly known as fraternal twins, but also referred to as non-identical twins or biovular twins) usually occur when two fertilized eggs are implanted in the uterine wall at the same time. The two eggs form two zygotes, and these twins are therefore also known as dizygotic as well as "biovular" twins. When two eggs are independently fertilized by two different sperm cells, DZ twins result. Dizygotic twins, like any other siblings, have an extremely small chance of having the exact same chromosome profile. Like any other siblings, DZ twins may look similar, particularly given that they are the same age. However, DZ twins may also look very different from each other. They may be different sexes or the same sex. The same holds true for brothers and sisters from the same parents, meaning that DZ twins are simply brothers and/or sisters who happen to have the same age.
Studies show that there is a genetic basis for DZ twinning. However, it is only the female partner that has any influence on the chances of having DZ twins as the male cannot make her release more than one ovum. Dizygotic twinning ranges from six per thousand births in Japan (similar to the rate of monozygotic twins) to 14 and more per thousand in some African countries.
DZ twins are also more common for older mothers, with twinning rates doubling in mothers over the age of 35. With the advent of technologies and techniques to assist women in getting pregnant, the rate of fraternals has increased markedly. For example, in New York City's Upper East Side there were 3,707 twin births in 1995; there were 4,153 in 2003; and there were 4,655 in 2004. Triplet births have also risen, from 60 in 1995 to 299 in 2004.

Monozygotic twins

Monozygotic twins, frequently referred to as identical twins, occur when a single egg is fertilized to form one zygote (monozygotic) which then divides into two separate embryos. Their traits and physical appearances are not exactly the same; although they have nearly identical DNA, environmental conditions both inside the womb and throughout their lives influence the switching on and off of various genes. Division of the zygote into two embryos is not considered to be a hereditary trait, but rather an anomaly that occurs in birthing at a rate of about three in every 1000 deliveries worldwide, regardless of ethnic background. The two embryos develop into fetuses sharing the same womb. When one egg is fertilized by one sperm cell, and then divides and separates, two identical cells will result. If the zygote splits very early (in the first two days after fertilization), each cell may develop separately its own placenta (chorion) and its own sac (amnion). These are called dichorionic diamniotic (di/di) twins, which occurs 20–30% of the time. Most of the time in MZ twins the zygote will split after two days, resulting in a shared placenta, but two separate sacs. These are called monochorionic diamniotic (mono/di) twins.
In about one percent of MZ twinning the splitting occurs late enough to result in both a shared placenta and a shared sac called monochorionic monoamniotic (mono/mono) twins. Finally, the zygote may split extremely late, resulting in conjoined twins. Mortality is highest for conjoined twins due to the many complications resulting from shared organs. Mono/mono twins have an overall in-utero mortality of about 50 percent, principally due to cord entanglement prior to 32 weeks gestation. If expecting parents choose hospitalization, mortality can decrease through consistent monitoring of the babies. Hospitalization can occur beginning at 24 weeks, but doctors prefer a later date to prevent any complications due to premature births. The choice is up to the parents when to start hospitalization. Many times, monoamniotic twins are delivered at 32 weeks electively for the safety of the babies. In higher order multiples, there can sometimes be a combination of DZ and MZ twins.
Mono/di twins have about a 25 percent mortality due to twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. Di/di twins have the lowest mortality risk at about nine percent, although that is still significantly higher than that of singletons.
Monozygotic twins are genetically identical (unless there has been a mutation in development) and they are always the same sex. (On rare occasions, monozygotic twins may express different phenotypes (normally due to an environmental factor or the deactivation of different X chromosomes in monozygotic female twins), and in some extremely rare cases, due to aneuploidy, twins may express different sexual phenotypes, normally due to an XXY Klinefelter's syndrome zygote splitting unevenly ). Monozygotic twins look alike, although they do not have the same fingerprints (which are environmental as well as genetic). As they mature, MZ twins often become less alike because of lifestyle choices or external influences. Genetically speaking, the children of MZ twins are half-siblings rather than cousins. If each member of one set of MZ twins reproduces with one member of another set of MZ twins then the resulting children would be genetic full siblings. It is estimated that there are around 10 million monozygotic twins and triplets in the world.
The likelihood of a single fertilisation resulting in MZ twins appears to be a random event, not a hereditary trait, and is uniformly distributed in all populations around the world.) and up to 24 in the US, which might mainly be due to IVF (in vitro fertilisation). The exact cause for the splitting of a zygote or embryo is unknown.
Monozygotic twins have nearly identical DNA but differing environmental influences throughout their lives affect which genes are switched on or off. This is called epigenetic modification. A study of 80 pairs of human twins ranging in age from three to 74 showed that the youngest twins have relatively few epigenetic differences. The number of epigenetic differences between MZ twins increases with age. Fifty-year-old twins had over three times the epigenetic difference of three-year-old twins. Twins who had spent their lives apart (such as those adopted by two different sets of parents at birth) had the greatest difference. However, certain characteristics become more alike as twins age, such as IQ and personality. This phenomenon illustrates the influence of genetics in many aspects of human characteristics and behaviour.
A recent theory posits that monozygotic twins are formed after an embryo essentially collapses, splitting the progenitor cells (those that contain the body's fundamental genetic material) in half. That leaves the same genetic material divided in two on opposite sides of the embryo. Eventually, two separate fetuses develop. The research was presented at a meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Lyon, France. Utilizing computer software to take photos every two minutes of 33 embryos growing in a laboratory, Dr. Dianna Payne, a visiting research fellow at the Mio Fertility Clinic in Japan, documented for the first time the early days of twin development. Payne also discovered explanation for why in-vitro fertilization techniques are more likely to create twins. Only about three pairs of twins per 1,000 deliveries occur as a result of natural conception, while for IVF deliveries, there are nearly 21 pairs of twins for every 1,000.


A recent study found that vegan mothers are five times less likely to have twins than those who eat animal products.
From 1980–97, the number of twin births in the United States rose 52%. This rise can at least partly be attributed to the increasing popularity of fertility drugs like Clomid and procedures such as in vitro fertilization, which result in multiple births more frequently than unassisted fertilizations do. It may also be linked to the increase of growth hormones in food. The rate of dizygotic twinning varies greatly among ethnic groups, ranging as high as about 6% for the Yoruba or 10% for Linha Sao Pedro, a tiny Brazilian village. The widespread use of fertility drugs causing hyperovulation (stimulated release of multiple eggs by the mother) has caused what some call an "epidemic of multiple births". In 2001, for the first time ever in the US, the twinning rate exceeded 3% of all births. Thus, approximately 5.8% of children born in the US in 2001 were twins. Among Hausa of Nigeria and Niger the incidence of multiple births was studied using the maternity records of 5750 Hausa women living in the savannah zone of Nigeria. There were 40 twins and 2 triplets/1000 births. Twenty six per cent of twins were monozygous. The incidence of multiple births, which was about five times higher than that observed in any western population, was significantly lower than that of other ethnic groups, who live in the hot and humid climate of the southern part of country. The incidence of multiple births was related to maternal age but did not bear any association to the climate or prevalence of malaria. Nevertheless, the rate of monozygotic twins remains at about 1 in 333 across the globe, further suggesting that pregnancies resulting in identical twins occur randomly.

Predisposing factors

The cause of monozygotic twinning is unknown.
Dizygotic twin pregnancies are slightly more likely when the following factors are present in the woman:

Conjoined twins

Conjoined twins (or "Siamese twins") are monozygotic twins whose bodies are joined together at birth. This occurs where the single zygote of MZ twins fails to separate completely, and the zygote starts to split after day 13 following fertilization. This condition occurs in about 1 in 50,000 human pregnancies. Most conjoined twins are now evaluated for surgery to attempt to separate them into separate functional bodies. The degree of difficulty rises if a vital organ or structure is shared between twins, such as brain, heart or liver.


A chimera is an ordinary person or animal except that some of their parts actually came from their twin or from the mother. A chimera may arise either from monozygotic twin fetuses (where it would be impossible to detect), or from dizygotic fetuses, which can be identified by chromosomal comparisons from various parts of the body. The number of cells derived from each fetus can vary from one part of the body to another, and often leads to characteristic mosaicism skin colouration in human chimeras. A chimera may be a hermaphrodite, composed of cells from a male twin and a female twin.

Parasitic twins

Sometimes one twin fetus will fail to develop completely and continue to cause problems for its surviving twin. One fetus acts as a parasite towards the other.
Sometimes the parasitic twin becomes an almost indistinguishable part of the other, and sometimes this needs to be medically dealt with.

Partial molar twins

A very rare type of parasitic twinning is one where a single viable twin is endangered when the other zygote becomes cancerous, or molar. This means that the molar zygote's cellular division continues unchecked, resulting in a cancerous growth that overtakes the viable fetus. Typically, this results when one twin has either triploidy or complete paternal uniparental disomy, resulting in little or no fetus and a cancerous, overgrown placenta, resembling a bunch of grapes.

Miscarried twin

Occasionally, a woman will suffer a miscarriage early in pregnancy, yet the pregnancy will continue; one twin was miscarried but the other was able to be carried to term. This occurrence is similar to the vanishing twin syndrome, but typically occurs later than the vanishing twin syndrome.

Low birth weight

Twins typically suffer from the lower birth weights and greater likelihood of prematurity that is more commonly associated with the higher multiple pregnancies. Throughout their lives twins tend to be smaller than singletons on average.

Twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome

Monozygotic twins who share a placenta can develop twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. This condition means that blood from one twin is being diverted into the other twin. One twin, the 'donor' twin, is small and anemic, the other, the 'recipient' twin, is large and polycythemic. The lives of both twins are endangered by this condition.

Human twin studies

Twin studies are studies that assess monozygotic twins for medical, genetic, or psychological characteristics to try to isolate genetic influence from epigenetic and environmental influence. Twins that have been separated early in life and raised in separate households are especially sought-after for these studies, which have been invaluable in the exploration of human nature.
Twin studies are called consanguity studies, observing the differences or similarities of twins in different environments to see how much of their behavior is attributable to genetics or environments influence.

Unusual twinnings

There are some patterns of twinning that are exceedingly rare: while they have been reported to happen, they are so unusual that most obstetricians or midwives may go their entire careers without encountering a single case.
Among dizygotic twins, in rare cases, the eggs are fertilized at different times with two or more acts of sexual intercourse, either within one menstrual cycle (superfecundation) or, even more rarely, later on in the pregnancy (superfetation). This can lead to the possibility of a woman carrying fraternal twins with different fathers (that is, half-siblings). This phenomenon is known as heteropaternal superfecundation. One 1992 study estimates that the frequency of heteropaternal superfecundation among dizygotic twins whose parents were involved in paternity suits was approximately 2.4%; see the references section, below, for more details.
Dizygotic twins from biracial couples can sometimes be mixed twins - which exhibit differing ethnic and racial features.
Among monozygotic twins, in extremely rare cases, twins have been born with opposite sexes (one male, one female). The probability of this is so vanishingly small (only 3 documented cases) that multiples having different sexes is universally accepted as a sound basis for a clinical determination that in utero multiples are not monozygotic. When monozygotic twins are born with different sexes it is because of chromosomal birth defects. In this case, although the twins did come from the same egg, it is incorrect to refer to them as genetically identical, since they have different karyotypes.

Semi-identical twins

Monozygotic twins can develop differently, due to different genes being activated. More unusual are "semi-identical twins". These "half-identical twins" are hypothesized to occur when an unfertilized egg cleaves into two identical attached ova and which are viable for fertilization. Both cloned ova are then fertilized by different sperm and the coalesced eggs undergo further cell duplications developing as a chimeric blastomere. If this blastomere then undergoes a twinning event, two embryos will be formed, each of which have different paternal genes and identical maternal genes.
This results in a set of twins with identical genes from the mother's side, but different genes from the father's side. Cells in each fetus carry genes from either sperm, resulting in chimeras. This form had been speculated until only recently being recorded in western medicine .

Animal twins

Twins are common in many animal species, such as cats, sheep, ferrets and deer. The incidence of twinning among cattle is about 1-4%, and research is under way to improve the odds of twinning, which can be more profitable for the breeder if complications can be sidestepped or managed. A species of armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) has identical twins (usually four babies) as its regular reproduction and not as exceptional cases.



Further reading

  • Schein, E., Bernstein, P. (Random House, 2007). "Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited."
  • Helle, S., Lummaa, V. & Jokela, J. (2004). Selection for increased brood size in pre-industrial humans. Evolution 52: 430-436. Full text
twins in Guarani: Membykõi
twins in Catalan: Bessó
twins in Danish: Tvilling
twins in German: Zwillinge
twins in Spanish: Gemelos (biología)
twins in Esperanto: Ĝemeloj
twins in French: Jumeau
twins in Korean: 쌍둥이
twins in Ido: Jemelo
twins in Indonesian: Kembar
twins in Italian: Gemelli (biologia)
twins in Hebrew: תאומים
twins in Latin: Gemini
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twins in Portuguese: Gêmeos
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twins in Chinese: 雙胞胎
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