Meiosis must be preceded by the S phase of the cell cycle. This is when DNA replication (the copying of the genetic material) occurs. Thus, each chromosome enters meiosis consisting of two sister chromatids joined at the centromere. The first stage of meiosis is a stage called prophase I. First, the DNA of individual chromosomes coils more and more tightly, a process called DNA condensation. The sister chromatids then attach to specific sites on the nuclear envelope that are designed to bring the members of each homologous pair of chromosomes close together. The sister chromatids line up in a fashion that is precise enough to pair up each gene on the DNA molecule with its corresponding "sister gene" on the homologous chromosome. This four-stranded structure of maternal and paternal homologues is also called a bivalent.
Next in prophase I is the process of crossing over, in which fragments of DNA are exchanged between the homologous sister chromatids that form the paired DNA strands. Crossing over involves the physical breakage of the DNA double helix in one paternal and one maternal chromatid and joining of the respective ends. Under the light microscope, the points of this exchange can often be seen as an X-shaped structure called a chiasma.
The exchange of genetic material means that new combinations of genes are created on two of the four chromatids: Stretches of DNA with maternal gene copies are mixed with stretches of DNA with paternal copies. This creation of new gene combinations is called "recombination" and is very important for evolution, since it increases the amount of genetic material that evolution can act upon. A statistical technique known as linkage analysis uses the frequency of recombination to infer the location of genes, such as those that increase a person's risk for certain diseases.
At the beginning of metaphase I, the nuclear envelope has dissolved, and specialized protein fibers called microtubules have formed a spindle apparatus, as also occurs in the metaphase of mitosis. These microtubules then attach to the kinetochore protein disks on the two centromeres of the homologous pair of chromosomes. However, there is an important difference between mitosis and meiosis in the way this attachment occurs. In mitosis, microtubules attach to both faces of the kinetochore and thus separate sister chromatids when they pull apart. In meiosis, because the chiasma structures still hold the homologous sister chromatids together, only one face of each kinetochore is accessible to the microtubules. Since the microtubules can only attach to one face of the kinetochore, the sister chromatids will be drawn to opposite poles as a pair, without separation of the individual chromatids.
At the end of metaphase I, the pairs of homologues line up on the metaphase plate in the center of the cell, the spindle apparatus is fully developed, and the microtubules of the spindle fibers are attached to one side of each of the two kinetochores. In anaphase I, the microtubules begin to shorten, thus breaking apart the chiasmata and pulling the centromeres with their respective sister chromatids toward the two cell poles. The centromeres do not divide, as they do in mitosis. At the final stage of meiosis I, called telophase I, each cell pole has a cluster of chromosomes that corresponds to a complete haploid set, one member of each homologous chromosome pair.