For other uses, see DNA (disambiguation).
The structure of part of a DNA double helixDeoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA is a nucleic acid molecule that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms. The main role of DNA is the long-term storage of information and it is often compared to a set of blueprints, since DNA contains the instructions needed to construct other components of cells, such as proteins and RNA molecules. The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in regulating the use of this genetic information.
DNA is a long polymer of simple units called nucleotides, with a backbone made of sugars and phosphate atoms joined by ester bonds. Attached to each sugar is one of four types of molecules called bases. It is the sequence of these four bases along the backbone that encodes information. This information is read using the genetic code, which specifies the sequence of the amino acids within proteins. The code is read by copying stretches of DNA into the related nucleic acid RNA, in a process called transcription. Most of these RNA molecules are used to synthesize proteins, but others are used directly in structures such as ribosomes and spliceosomes.
Within cells, DNA is organized into structures called chromosomes and the set of chromosomes within a cell make up a genome. These chromosomes are duplicated before cells divide, in a process called DNA replication. Eukaryotic organisms such as animals, plants, and fungi store their DNA inside the cell nucleus, while in prokaryotes such as bacteria it is found in the cell’s cytoplasm. Within the chromosomes, chromatin proteins such as histones compact and organize DNA, which helps control its interactions with other proteins and thereby control which genes are transcribed.
Physical and chemical properties
The chemical structure of DNA.DNA is a long polymer made from repeating units called nucleotides. The DNA chain is 22 to 24 Ångströms wide (2.2 to 2.4 nanometres), and one nucleotide unit is 3.3 Ångstroms (0.33 nanometres) long. Although each individual repeating unit is very small, DNA polymers can be enormous molecules containing millions of nucleotides. For instance, the largest human chromosome, chromosome number 1, is 220 million base pairs long.
In living organisms, DNA does not usually exist as a single molecule, but instead as a tightly-associated pair of molecules. These two long strands entwine like vines, in the shape of a double helix. The nucleotide repeats contain both the segment of the backbone of the molecule, which holds the chain together, and a base, which interacts with the other DNA strand in the helix. In general, a base linked to a sugar is called a nucleoside and a base linked to a sugar and one or more phosphate groups is called a nucleotide. If multiple nucleotides are linked together, as in DNA, this polymer is referred to as a polynucleotide.
The backbone of the DNA strand is made from alternating phosphate and sugar residues. The sugar in DNA is 2-deoxyribose, which is a pentose (five carbon) sugar. The sugars are joined together by phosphate groups that form phosphodiester bonds between the third and fifth carbon atoms of adjacent sugar rings. These asymmetric bonds mean a strand of DNA has a direction. In a double helix the direction of the nucleotides in one strand is opposite to their direction in the other strand. This arrangement of DNA strands is called antiparallel. The asymmetric ends of a strand of DNA bases are referred to as the 5′ (five prime) and 3′ (three prime) ends. One of the major differences between DNA and RNA is the sugar, with 2-deoxyribose being replaced by the alternative pentose sugar ribose in RNA.
The DNA double helix is stabilized by hydrogen bonds between the bases attached to the two strands. The four bases found in DNA are adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). These four bases are shown below and are attached to the sugar/phosphate to form the complete nucleotide, as shown for adenosine monophosphate.
These bases are classified into two types; adenine and guanine are fused five- and six-membered heterocyclic compounds called purines, while cytosine and thymine are six-membered rings called pyrimidines. A fifth pyrimidine base, called uracil (U), usually takes the place of thymine in RNA and differs from thymine by lacking a methyl group on its ring. Uracil is not usually found in DNA, occurring only as a breakdown product of cytosine, but a very rare exception to this rule is a bacterial virus called PBS1 that contains uracil in its DNA. In contrast, following synthesis of certain RNA molecules, a significant number of the uracils are converted to thymines by the enzymatic addition of the missing methyl group. This occurs mostly on structural and enzymatic RNAs like transfer RNAs and ribosomal RNA.
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. Large versionThe double helix is a right-handed spiral. As the DNA strands wind around each other, they leave gaps between each set of phosphate backbones, revealing the sides of the bases inside (see animation). There are two of these grooves twisting around the surface of the double helix: one groove, the major groove, is 22 Å wide and the other, the minor groove, is 12 Å wide. The narrowness of the minor groove means that the edges of the bases are more accessible in the major groove. As a result, proteins like transcription factors that can bind to specific sequences in double-stranded DNA usually make contacts to the sides of the bases exposed in the major groove.