Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

Discovering the structure and beyond

Where is DNA found?

In organisms called eukaryotes, DNA is found inside a special area of the cell called the nucleus. Because the cell is very small, and because organisms have many DNA molecules per cell, each DNA molecule must be tightly packaged. This packaged form of the DNA is called a chromosome.

During DNA replication, DNA unwinds so it can be copied. At other times in the cell cycle, DNA also unwinds so that its instructions can be used to make proteins and for other biological processes. But during cell division, DNA is in its compact chromosome form to enable transfer to new cells.

Researchers refer to DNA found in the cell's nucleus as nuclear DNA. An organism's complete set of nuclear DNA is called its genome.

Besides the DNA located in the nucleus, humans and other complex organisms also have a small amount of DNA in cell structures known as mitochondria. Mitochondria generate the energy the cell needs to function properly.

In sexual reproduction, organisms inherit half of their nuclear DNA from the male parent and half from the female parent. However, organisms inherit all of their mitochondrial DNA from the female parent. This occurs because only egg cells, and not sperm cells, keep their mitochondria during fertilization.
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What is DNA made of?

DNA is made of chemical building blocks called nucleotides. These building blocks are made of three parts: a phosphate group, a sugar group and one of four types of nitrogen bases. To form a strand of DNA, nucleotides are linked into chains, with the phosphate and sugar groups alternating.

The four types of nitrogen bases found in nucleotides are: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). The order, or sequence, of these bases determines what biological instructions are contained in a strand of DNA. For example, the sequence ATCGTT might instruct for blue eyes, while ATCGCT might instruct for brown.

The complete DNA instruction book, or genome, for a human contains about 3 billion bases and about 20,000 genes on 23 pairs of chromosomes.
What is DNA and How Does it Work?

How are DNA sequences used to make proteins?

DNA's instructions are used to make proteins in a two-step process. First, enzymes read the information in a DNA molecule and transcribe it into an intermediary molecule called messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA.

Next, the information contained in the mRNA molecule is translated into the "language" of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. This language tells the cell's protein-making machinery the precise order in which to link the amino acids to produce a specific protein. This is a major task because there are 20 types of amino acids, which can be placed in many different orders to form a wide variety of proteins.