The Roles of Nucleic Acid


Gene expression: In a eukaryotic cell, DNA in the nucleus programs protein production in the cytoplasm by dictating synthesis of messenger RNA (mRNA).
Source: Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 84). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Campbell Biology

The two types of nucleic acids, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), enable living organisms to reproduce their complex components from one generation to the next. Unique among molecules, DNA provides directions for its own replication. DNA also directs RNA synthesis and, through RNA, controls protein synthesis; this entire process is called gene expression.

DNA is the genetic material that organisms inherit from their parents. Each chromosome contains one long DNA molecule, usually carrying several hundred or more genes. When a cell reproduces itself by dividing, its DNA molecules are copied and passed along from one generation of cells to the next. The information that programs all the cell’s activities is encoded in the structure of the DNA. The DNA, however, is not directly involved in running the operations of the cell, any more than computer software by itself can read the bar code on a box of cereal. Just as a scanner is needed to read a bar code, proteins are required to implement genetic programs. The molecular hardware of the cell—the tools that carry out biological functions—consists mostly of proteins. For example, the oxygen carrier in red blood cells is the protein hemoglobin that you saw earlier, not the DNA that specifies its structure.

How does RNA, the other type of nucleic acid, fit into gene expression, the flow of genetic information from DNA to proteins? A given gene along a DNA molecule can direct synthesis of a type of RNA called messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA molecule interacts with the cell’s protein-synthesizing machinery to direct production of a polypeptide, which folds into all or part of a protein. The sites of protein synthesis are cellular structures called ribosomes. In a eukaryotic cell, ribosomes are in the cytoplasm— the region between the nucleus and the plasma membrane, the cell’s outer boundary—but DNA resides in the nucleus. Messenger RNA conveys genetic instructions for building proteins from the nucleus to the cytoplasm. Prokaryotic cells lack nuclei but still use mRNA to convey a message from the DNA to ribosomes and other cellular equipment that translate the coded information into amino acid sequences.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.


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