Introductionnucleic acid, any of a group of organic substances found in the chromosomes of living cells and viruses that play a central role in the storage and replication of hereditary information and in the expression of this information through protein synthesis. In most organisms, nucleic acids occur in combination with proteins; the combined substances are called nucleoproteins. Nucleic acid molecules are complex chains of varying length. The two chief types of nucleic acids are DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which carries the hereditary information from generation to generation, and RNA (ribonucleic acid), which delivers the instructions coded in this information to the cell's protein manufacturing sites.
A substance that he called nuclein (now known as DNA) was isolated by 1869 by Friedrich Miescher, but it was only in the last half of the 20th cent. that that research revealed its significance as the material of which the gene is composed, and thus its function as the chemical bearer of hereditary characteristics. RNA was first made by laboratory synthesis in 1955. In 1965 the nucleotide sequence of tRNA was determined, and in 1967 the synthesis of biologically active DNA was achieved. The amount of RNA varies from cell to cell, but the amount of DNA is normally constant for all typical cells of a given species of plant or animal, no matter what the size or function of that cell. The amount doubles as the chromosomes replicate themselves before cell division takes place (see mitosis); in the ovum and sperm the amount is half that in the body cells (see meiosis).
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