DNA: Structure, Function and Discovery

Nucleic acids are the organic materials present in all organisms in the form of DNA or RNA. These nucleic acids are formed by the combination of nitrogenous bases, sugar molecules and the phosphate groups that are linked by different bonds in a series of sequences. The DNA structure defines the basic genetic makeup of our body. In fact, it defines the genetic makeup of nearly all life on earth.

Read on to explore DNA structure, functions and diagram in complete detail.

Table of Contents

What is DNA?
Who Discovered DNA?
DNA Structure
Chargaff’s Rule
DNA Replication
Functions of DNA
Why DNA is called a Polynucleotide Molecule?

What is DNA?

“DNA is a group of molecules that is responsible for carrying and transmitting the hereditary materials or the genetic instructions from parents to offsprings.”

This is also true for viruses as most of these entities have either RNA or DNA as their genetic material. For instance, some viruses may have RNA as their genetic material, while others have DNA as the genetic material. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) contains RNA, which is then converted into DNA after attaching itself to the host cell.

Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA is an organic compound that has a unique molecular structure. It is found in all prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells

Apart from being responsible for the inheritance of genetic information in all living beings, DNA also plays a crucial role in the production of proteins. Nuclear DNA is the DNA contained within the nucleus of every cell in a eukaryotic organism. It codes for the majority of the organism’s genomes while the mitochondrial DNA and plastid DNA handles the rest.

The DNA present in the mitochondria of the cell is termed as mitochondrial DNA. It is inherited from the mother to the child. In humans, there are approximately 16,000 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA. Similarly, plastids have their own DNA, and they play an essential role in photosynthesis.

Also Read: Difference between gene and DNA

Who Discovered DNA?

DNA was first recognised and identified by the Swiss biologist, Johannes Friedrich Miescher in 1869 during his research on white blood cells.

The double helix structure of a DNA molecule was later discovered through the experimental data by James Watson and Francis Crick. Finally, it was proved that DNA is responsible for storing the genetic information of a human being.

DNA Structure

Structure of DNA

DNA Diagram showing the double-helical DNA structure

The DNA structure can be thought of like a twisted ladder. This structure is described as a double-helix, as illustrated in the figure above. It is a nucleic acid, and all nucleic acids are made up of nucleotides.

The DNA molecule is composed of materials called nucleotides, and each nucleotide is composed of three different components such as sugar, phosphate groups, and nitrogen bases. 

The basic building blocks of DNA are nucleotides, which are composed of a carbon-sugar group, a phosphate group, and a nitrogen base. The sugar and phosphate groups link the nucleotides together to form each strand of DNA. Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Guanine (G)  and Cytosine (C) are four types of nitrogen bases.

These 4 Nitrogenous bases pair together in the following way: A with T, and C with G. These base pairs are essential for the DNA’s double helix structure, which resembles a twisted ladder.

The order of the nitrogenous bases determines the genetic code or the DNA’s instructions.

DNA Structure

Components of DNA Structure

Among the three components of DNA structure, sugar is the one which forms the backbone of the DNA molecule. It is also called deoxyribose. The nitrogenous bases of the opposite strands form hydrogen bonds, forming a ladder-like structure.

Structure of DNA

DNA Structure Backbone

The DNA molecule consists of 4 nitrogen bases, namely adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and Guanine (G) which ultimately forms the structure of a nucleotide. The A and G from a pair of purines and the C and T from pyrimidines. Both purines and pyrimidines differ as they have the carbon rings either single or double.

The two strands of DNA run in opposite directions. These strands are held together by the hydrogen bond that is present between the two. The strands are helically twisted, where each strand forms a right-handed coil and ten nucleotides make up a single turn.

The pitch of each helix is 3.4 nm. Hence, the distance between two consecutive base pairs (i.e., hydrogen-bonded bases of the opposite strands) is 0.34 nm.

Structure of DNA

The DNA coils up, forming chromosomes, and each chromosome has a single molecule of DNA in it. Overall, human beings have around twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in the cells of the nucleus. DNA also plays an essential role in the process of cell division.

Also Read: DNA Packaging

Chargaff’s Rule

Erwin Chargaff, a biochemist, discovered that the number of nitrogenous bases in the DNA was present in equal quantities. The amount of A is equal to T, whereas the amount of C is equal to G.

A=T; C=G

In other words, the DNA of any cell from any organism should have a 1:1 ratio of purine and pyrimidine bases.

DNA Replication

DNA replication is an important process that occurs during cell division. It is also known as semi-conservative replication, during which DNA makes a copy of itself.

DNA replication takes place in three stages :

Step 1: Initiation

The replication of DNA begins at a point known as the origin of replication. The two DNA strands are separated by the DNA helicase. This forms the replication fork.

Step 2: Elongation

DNA polymerase III reads the nucleotides on the template strand and makes a new strand by adding complementary nucleotides one after the other. For eg., if it reads an Adenine on the template strand, it will add a Thymine on the complementary strand.

While adding nucleotides to the lagging strand, gaps are formed between the strands. These gaps are known as Okazaki fragments. These gaps or nicks are sealed by ligase.

Step 3: Termination

The termination sequence present opposite to the origin of replication terminates the replication process. The TUS protein (terminus utilization substance) terminator sequence pauses the leading fork until the lagging strand arrives and induces termination.

Also Read: DNA Replication

Functions of DNA

DNA is the genetic material which car­ries all the hereditary information which are coded in the arrangement of its nitrogen bases. Genes are the small segments of DNA, consisting mostly of 250 – 2 million base pairs, depending on the gene. A gene code for a polypeptide molecule, where three nitrogenous bases stand for one amino acid.

Thus, the sequence of a gene can be used to make a polypeptide, which then forms a protein. As every organism contains many genes in their DNA, different types of proteins can be formed. Proteins are the main functional and structural molecules in most of the organisms. Apart from storing genetic information, DNA is also involved in:

  • Replication process: Transferring the genetic information from one cell to its daughters and from one generation to the next
  • Equal distribution of DNA during the cell division
  • Mutations: The changes which occur during the DNA sequences
  • Transcription
  • Cellular Metabolism
  • DNA Fingerprinting
  • Gene Therapy

Why DNA is called a Polynucleotide Molecule?

The DNA is called a polynucleotide because the DNA molecule is composed of nucleotides – deoxyadenylate (A), deoxyguanylate (G), deoxycytidylate (C), and deoxythymidylate (thymidylate) (T), which are combined to create long chains called a polynucleotide. As per the DNA structure, the DNA consists of two chains of the polynucleotide, each in the form of a spherical spiral.

Also Read: Genetic Material

For more detailed information on DNA structure, diagram, functions or any other related topics, explore @ BYJU’S Biology.

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