nucleic acid


The chemical and physical properties of DNA suit it for both replication and transfer of information. Each DNA molecule is a long two-stranded chain. The strands are made up of subunits called nucleotides, each containing a sugar (deoxyribose), a phosphate group, and one of four nitrogenous bases, adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine, denoted A, G, T, and C, respectively. A given strand contains nucleotides bearing each of these four. The information carried by a given gene is coded in the sequence in which the nucleotides bearing different bases occur along the strand. These nucleotide sequences determine the sequences of amino acids in the polypeptide chain of the protein specified by that gene.

Between the genes, or coding loci, on the DNA of higher organisms, there are long portions of DNA, often referred to as "junk" DNA, that code no proteins. Sometimes junk DNA occurs within a gene; when this occurs, the coding portions are called exons and the noncoding (junk) portions are called introns. Junk DNA makes up 97% of the DNA in the human genome. Little is known of its purpose.

In 1953 the molecular biologists J. D. Watson, an American, and F. H. Crick, an Englishman, proposed that the two DNA strands were coiled in a double helix. In this model each nucleotide subunit along one strand is bound to a nucleotide subunit on the other strand by hydrogen bonds between the base portions of the nucleotides. The fact that adenine bonds only with thymine (A—T) and guanine bonds only with cytosine (G—C) determines that the strands will be complementary, i.e., that for every adenine on one strand there will be a thymine on the other strand. It is the property of complementarity between strands that insures that DNA can be replicated, i.e., that identical copies can be made in order to be transmitted to the next generation.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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