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Image: DNA. By: PublicDomainPictures. License: CC0 1.0

Design and Structure of DNA

Each cellular nucleus of the human body contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which carries the genetic information of humans, and most other organisms, on its 46 homologous chromosomes. In 1944, Oswald T. Avery demonstrated that DNA was the foundation of genetics and the “blueprint of the body”. The coding units of DNA are called genes. The filamentous macromolecule of DNA consists of a double helix in which two nucleotide strands are connected with each other through hydrogen bonding of their base pairs.

Structure model DNA Helix

Image: “DNA orbit” animated by Zephyris. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

DNA: Nucleotides and Base Pairing

DNA Macrostructure

Picture: “DNA Macrostructure” by philschatz. Licence: CC BY 4.0

DNA consists of nucleotides. A nucleotide consists of a base (adenine, cytosine, guanine, or thymine), a sugar, and a phosphate group. The base portion is the actual carrier of the genetic information. The sugar portion of DNA has one less oxygen than the ribose from which it emerges, hence the name “deoxy”-ribose. In reference to DNA, this sugar is known as D-ribose or 2-deoxy-D-ribose. The length of a DNA segment is measured in the number of base pairs (bp) or nucleotides (nt). If the segment is larger, kilobases (1 kb = 1000 bp) or megabases (1Mb = 1000 kb) are used.

Nucleosides, Nucleotides: An Overview of Important Abbreviations

(Organic) bases: Adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine, and uracil. Other related bases: hypoxanthine and xanthine.

molecular sructure of dna

Image: “Molecular Structure of DNA” by Phil Schatz. License: CC BY 4.0

Tip: If you can recognize, differentiate, and draw these bases, you can be sure to score some important points in your exams.

Nucleoside: composed of an organic base and a pentose (D-ribose or 2-deoxy-D-ribose). The bases are either adenosine, guanosine, thymidine, cytidine, and uridine, which are each abbreviated by their first letter (A, G, T, C, U). Other related bases are inosine and xanthosine.

Nucleotide: composed of an organic base, a pentose (D-ribose or 2-deoxy-D-ribose), and a phosphate. These are abbreviated with the nucleoside abbreviations (A, G, T, C, U) plus MP for a monophosphate, DP for a diphosphate, and TP for a triphosphate. Nucleotides containing 2-deoxy-D-ribose are additionally prefixed with a small d-. Examples: 5′-adenosine monophosphate = AMP; guanosine-3′-diphosphate = GDP; 5′-deoxyadenosine triphosphate = dATP.


Image: “Adenosine-triphosphate-3D-balls” by Jynto. License: CC0

  • Nucleoside monophosphate (e.g., adenosine monophosphate = AMP): composed of a nucleoside (organic base and pentose) and one phosphate group, which is esterified to the 5′ carbon, unless otherwise described.
  • Nucleoside diphosphate (e.g., adenosine diphosphate = ADP): composed of a nucleoside (organic base and pentose) and two phosphate groups, which are esterified to the 5′ carbon, unless otherwise described.
  • Nucleoside triphosphate (e.g., adenosine triphosphate = ATP): composed of a nucleoside (organic base and pentose) and three phosphate groups, which are esterified to the 5′ carbon, unless otherwise described.

In DNA, the purine bases adenine (A) and guanine (G) always pair with the pyrimidine bases thymine (T) and cytosine (C).

Note: The pyrimidine bases thymine and cytosine have a “y” in their name (Find out more about nucleotide metabolism here).

In RNA, uracil is found predominantly instead of thymine. Thymine differs from uracil only by a methyl group at position five. Adenine and thymine form two hydrogen bonds between each other; guanine and cytosine form three hydrogen bonds. All of these bases are subject to tautomerism: for the base pairing, they must exist in the keto form.

chemical structure of dna

Image: “DNA chemical structure” by Madeleine Price Ball. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Nucleotides create nucleotide chains, in which the mononucleotides form a 5′-3′ phosphodiester bond: the phosphate at position 5′ of one mononucleotide bonds with the deoxyribose at position 3′ of the other mononucleotide. Thus, a polynucleotide has a free 5′-phosphate end and a free 3′-hydroxyl end to continue the chain.

In DNA, two complementary nucleotide strands form a duplex. Depending on their orientation, they are called the 5′-3′ strand (coding strand or sense strand) and the 3′-5′ strand (non-coding strand, antisense strand, or template strand). The sequence of nucleotide bases in the coding strand in the 5′-3′ orientation corresponds to the complementary sequence of bases of the template strand in the 3′-5′ orientation. The individual strands run antiparallel to each other.

Due to base pairing, the number of adenine bases present in one molecule of DNA is always equal to the number of thymine bases (A = T) and the number of guanine bases is always equal to that of cytosine bases (G = C) (Chargaff’s rule). This also implies that the sum of the purines (A + G) is always equal to the sum of the pyrimidines (T + C).

Since the application of this rule is sometimes tested in exams, here’s an example:

Given: C = 29%. (Application (1): C = G; A = T)

It follows: G = 29%. (Application (2): Purine A + G = Pyrimidine T + C; (A + G) + (T+C) = 100%

Further: A + 29% = T + 29%

Therefore: A and T each are 21%; C and G are 29%.

The DNA Double Helix

The two nucleotide strands (double strands) constituting DNA are not arranged on one plane but twisted into a double helix. James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick first described it correctly in 1953, and today this structure is still referred to as the Watson-Crick model. In 1962, they received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery.


The abbreviations dsDNA (double-stranded DNA) and ssDNA (single-stranded DNA) are used to describe whether DNA is present in its double helix form or not.

The hydrophobic, positively charged bases with their hydrogen bonds are located on the interior of the strand; the neutral sugar rings and negatively charged phosphates form the negatively charged exterior of the strand.

This characteristic is also of use in histochemistry for staining histological preparations: the blue-black dye hematoxylin is alkaline. It, therefore, tends to electrochemically attach to the acidic DNA of the nucleus, which makes the nuclei appear dark blue in the HE staining.

In vivo, the DNA double helices are usually found in their B conformation (B-DNA). Rare forms are the left-handed Z form and the A form, which do not occur in vivo. The B form of the double helix is right-handed (referring to the direction in which it is wound around the axis). Its diameter is approximately 2 nm; the distance between two adjacent base pairs of a strand is 0.34 nm. One turn of the double helix covers ten base pairs, which results in a height of 3.4 nm. The stacking of the bases provides for further stabilization of the B form as the electrons of the overlapping bases exert so-called stacking forces. The helical structure forms a large groove and a small groove between its two strands.

Organization and Packaging of DNA: Histones, Nucleosomes, and Chromatin

If the DNA molecule of a single human cell were laid out straight, without further packaging, it would be about six feet long. In order to fit into the nucleus and to be protected against external influences and shearing forces, DNA must be in a condensed state. Various condensation methods have been observed, each involving certain proteins binding to the DNA molecules.

DNA: From Histone to Nucleosome and Solenoid to Chromatin

From small to large, the double helix undergoes its first compression through histone proteins, around which it winds in 1 and 2/3 turns. The alkaline histones are predominantly comprised of the alkaline, positively charged amino acids arginine and lysine, which allow for easy accumulation to the negatively charged backbone of the DNA structure via ionic interactions.

Like most proteins, the histones are synthesized in the cytosol. They are divided into five different classes: H1, H2A, H2B, H3, and H4. The DNA winds around a histone octamer, a structure formed by two molecules of each of the four histone proteins H2A, H2B, H3, and H4. The histone octamer and the 146 base pairs (bp) of the DNA wound around it form a nucleosome with a diameter of 11 nm.

The DNA found between the nucleosomes is called linker DNA and is up to 80 bp in length. The nucleosomes, along with the linker DNA, form a nucleosome strand. Histone molecules of the H1 class bind to the linker DNA. The nucleosome strand twists on itself and forms the 30 nm long solenoid strand. This fiber, in turn, forms chromatin loops, using various non-histone proteins, which form the macrostructure of the chromosomes in the nucleus.

Nucleosome structure

Image: “Nucleosome structure” by Richard Wheeler (Zephyris). License: CC BY-SA 3.0

For chromatin, we distinguish between euchromatin (Greek eu = well, good) and heterochromatin. The “good” euchromatin is less condensed and thus looser, which makes it more easily read by the enzymes for transcription; it is commonly found in metabolically active cells. Heterochromatin is maximally condensed, is transcribed less often, and can be found in cells with a low metabolism.

Histone Modification

Through modifications of the histones, the transcription of DNA can be altered. Alkaline histones, which mainly consist of the amino acids lysine and arginine, attach to the acidic DNA. Additional molecules can bind to their positively charged free groups:

  • Acetylation refers to an acetyl group (chemical formula: COCH3; a carbonyl and a methyl group) attaching to the lysine group of a histone octamer. Acetylation leads to an opening of the DNA and increases the rate of transcription.
  • Methylation refers to the addition of a methyl (CH3) group to a lysine or arginine group of a histone. Methylation may correlate with both an increased or a decreased transcription rate, depending on the methylated amino acid. DNA can also be methylated directly, which mostly occurs in regions with a high frequency of CpG sites, so-called CpG islands. As part of epigenetics, methylation of DNA can be inherited.
  • Phosphorylation (attachment of a phosphate group) may occur on the free hydroxyl (OH) groups of some amino acids, i.e. on serine, threonine, and tyrosine. Similar to methylation, this can have an effect of both increased and decreased transcription.

Other possible modifications are ubiquitylation and ADP-ribosylation.

RNA: Types and Differences to DNA


Image: “RNA-Nucleobases” by Sponk. License: Gemeinfrei

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) functions as the genetic carrier of some viruses. In humans, RNA contributes in many different ways to protein biosynthesis and is involved in its transcription and translation and may also have a catalyzing or regulatory function:

  • The hnRNA (heterogeneous nuclear RNA) can be found in the nucleus of eukaryotic cells as a precursor of the mature mRNA and is, therefore, also referred to as pre-mRNA.
  • The mRNA (messenger RNA) is used as a complementary copy of a DNA strand during transcription and migrates from the nucleus to the cytosol to serve there as a template for translation.
  • The tRNA (transfer RNA) acts as a mediating link during translation, bringing together the mRNA triplets and the amino acids for which they code.
  • The rRNA (ribosomal RNA), along with some proteins, forms the ribosome structure, whose subunits make translation possible.
  • The mtRNA (mitochondrial RNA) consists of mitochondrial rRNA, tRNA, and mRNA, and functions in the same manner as the eukaryotic molecules of the same name.
  • The snRNA (small nuclear RNA), together with certain other proteins, can form a spliceosome, which can then initiate the splicing of certain genes.
  • The snoRNA (small nucleolar RNA) acts as a guide in the modification of rRNA and snRNA.
  • The scRNA (small cytoplasmic RNA) belongs to the signal recognition particles (SRP), which target proteins that are destined for the extracellular space and carry them to the endoplasmic reticulum for further transport.
  • The siRNA (short interfering RNA) serves a regulatory function by binding to specific mRNA bases, inducing their degradation.
  • The miRNA (micro RNA) serves a regulatory function by inhibiting the further processing of mRNA through specific base pairing.

The components of the RNA can be deduced from its name ribonucleic acid, which contains D-ribose, unlike the deoxy-D-ribose of the DNA. RNA differs from DNA in other aspects as well: its bases are adenine, cytosine, guanine, and uracil. Uracil replaces thymine and pairs with adenine. The two bases differ only by one methyl group at position 5. Thymine is rarely found in RNA, with one exception being (transfer) tRNA.

Difference DNA RNA

Picture: “Difference DNA RNA” by Sponk. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

RNA is usually found as a single strand. Within the RNA strand, corresponding bases can pair through hydrogen bonds and thus form structures such as the cloverleaf structure of tRNA. Moreover, RNA can establish intermolecular base pairings, which gives it the form of a double helix with an A conformation; this way, it is easier for lighter secondary structures similar to histone modifications (see above) to attach to it.

Other Forms of DNA

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)

Mitochondria, the “powerhouses of the cell”, have their own DNA, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This fact is also seen as evidence of the endosymbiosis theory, which states that mitochondria were independent bacteria-like organisms before they were consumed by eukaryotic precursor cells to assume specific tasks for the cells.

The mtDNA is located inside of the mitochondrion (matrix), comprising 16 kb, in annular form or as a double strand. The mitochondrial genes on the mtDNA code for the compounds of the respiratory chain, for mitochondrial mRNA, and tRNA.

Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited, i.e. inherited from the mother. The paternal mitochondria are located at the neck of the sperm, which does not fully penetrate the egg. In addition, the egg has a degradation mechanism against paternal mitochondria.

Bacterial DNA

The DNA of prokaryotes (single-cell organisms without a nucleus, e.g., bacteria), is freely located in the cytoplasm in the form of a chromosome or plasmid. Both structures are circular and consist of a right-handed double helix, which is, due to reasons of energy and space, twisted additionally in a left-handed orientation around the helix axis.

This additional twist is carried out by topoisomerases that only occur in bacteria: DNA gyrase and topoisomerase IV. The entire gene expression is subject to fewer repair mechanisms than in humans because mutations are a desirable feature in the evolutionary strategy of the bacteria. Furthermore, through various mechanisms, bacteria can exchange DNA plasmids among themselves.

Viral DNA

The viral genome is either present as DNA or RNA, depending on the nucleic acid type. DNA viruses have a double-stranded, linear or circular DNA and often a large genome, which is relatively stable (i.e. poxviruses, herpesviruses). Single-stranded DNA viruses are very rare (e.g., the parvovirus B19, which causes erythema infectiosum).

RNA viruses, on the other hand, have single-stranded (ss) RNA with limited genome size, which is subject to frequent mutation due to the lack of correction mechanisms. It is, however, very adaptable (e.g., flavivirus or HI virus). Double-stranded RNA viruses are very rare (e.g., rotavirus).

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