DNA, the Genetic Material


Source: Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Campbell Biology

Before a cell divides, the DNA is first replicated, or copied, and each of the two cellular offspring inherits a complete set of chromosomes, identical to that of the parent cell. Each chromosome contains one very long DNA molecule with hundreds or thousands of genes, each a section of the DNA of the chromosome. Transmitted from parents to offspring, genes are the units of inheritance. They encode the information necessary to build all of the molecules synthesized within a cell, which in turn establish that cell’s identity and function. You began as a single cell stocked with DNA inherited from your parents. The replication of that DNA prior to each cell division transmitted copies of the DNA to what eventually became the trillions of cells of your body. As the cells grew and divided, the genetic information encoded by the DNA directed your development.

The molecular structure of DNA accounts for its ability to store information. A DNA molecule is made up of two long chains, called strands, arranged in a double helix. Each chain is made up of four kinds of chemical building blocks called nucleotides, abbreviated A, T, C, and G. Specific sequences of these four nucleotides encode the information in genes. The way DNA encodes information is analogous to how we arrange the letters of the alphabet into words and phrases with specific meanings. The word rat, for example, evokes a rodent; the words tar and art, which contain the same letters, mean very different things. We can think of nucleotides as a four-letter alphabet.

For many genes, the sequence provides the blueprint for making a protein. For instance, a given bacterial gene may specify a particular protein (an enzyme) required to break down a certain sugar molecule, while a human gene may denote a different protein (an antibody) that helps fight off infection. Overall, proteins are major players in building and maintaining the cell and carrying out its activities.

Protein-encoding genes control protein production indirectly, using a related molecule called RNA as an intermediary. The sequence of nucleotides along a gene is transcribed into mRNA, which is then translated into a linked series of protein building blocks called amino acids. Once completed, the amino acid chain forms a specific protein with a unique shape and function. The entire process by which the information in a gene directs the manufacture of a cellular product is called gene expression.

In carrying out gene expression, all forms of life employ essentially the same genetic code: A particular sequence of nucleotides says the same thing in one organism as it does in another. Differences between organisms reflect differences between their nucleotide sequences rather than between their genetic codes. This universality of the genetic code is a strong piece of evidence that all life is related. Comparing the sequences in several species for a gene that codes for a particular protein can provide valuable information both about the protein and about the relationship of the species to each other.

The mRNA molecule is translated into a protein, but other cellular RNAs function differently. For example, we have known for decades that some types of RNA are actually components of the cellular machinery that manufactures proteins. Recently, scientists have discovered whole new classes of RNA that play other roles in the cell, such as regulating the functioning of protein-coding genes. Genes specify all of these RNAs as well, and their production is also referred to as gene expression. By carrying the instructions for making proteins and RNAs and by replicating with each cell division, DNA ensures faithful inheritance of genetic information from generation to generation.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 7). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.


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