An allele ( /ˈæliːl/ or /əˈliːl/) is one of two or more forms of a gene or a genetic locus (generally a group of genes). The form "allel" is also used, an abbreviation of allelomorph. Sometimes, different alleles can result in different observable phenotypic traits, such as different pigmentation. However, many variations at the genetic level result in little or no observable variation.
Most multicellular organisms have two sets of chromosomes, that is, they are diploid. These chromosomes are referred to as homologous chromosomes. Diploid organisms have one copy of each gene (and therefore one allele) on each chromosome. If both alleles are the same, they are homozygotes. If the alleles are different, they are heterozygotes.
A population or species of organisms typically includes multiple alleles at each locus among various individuals. Allelic variation at a locus is measurable as the number of alleles (polymorphism) present, or the proportion of heterozygotes in the population.
For example, at the gene locus for the ABO blood type carbohydrate antigens in humans, classical genetics recognizes three alleles, IA, IB, and IO, that determine compatibility of blood transfusions. Any individual has one of six possible genotypes (AA, AO, BB, BO, AB, and OO) that produce one of four possible phenotypes: "A" (produced by AA homozygous and AO heterozygous genotypes), "B" (produced by BB homozygous and BO heterozygous genotypes), "AB" heterozygotes, and "O" homozygotes. It is now known that each of the A, B, and O alleles is actually a class of multiple alleles with different DNA sequences that produce proteins with identical properties: more than 70 alleles are known at the ABO locus. An individual with "Type A" blood may be an AO heterozygote, an AA homozygote, or an A'A heterozygote with two different 'A' alleles.
The word "allele" is a short form of allelomorph ('other form'), which was used in the early days of genetics to describe variant forms of a gene detected as different phenotypes. It derives from the Greek root ἄλλος, and alius (Latin) meaning "other"; then the word αλληλους, allelos, meaning "each other".