DNA and RNA
The two main types of nucleic acids are deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). DNA is the genetic material found in all living organisms, ranging from single-celled bacteria to multicellular mammals. It is found in the nucleus of eukaryotes and in the chloroplasts and mitochondria. In prokaryotes, the DNA is not enclosed in a membranous envelope, but rather free-floating within the cytoplasm.
The entire genetic content of a cell is known as its genome and the study of genomes is genomics. In eukaryotic cells, but not in prokaryotes, DNA forms a complex with histone proteins to form chromatin, the substance of eukaryotic chromosomes. A chromosome may contain tens of thousands of genes. Many genes contain the information to make protein products; other genes code for RNA products. DNA controls all of the cellular activities by turning the genes “on” or “off.”
The other type of nucleic acid, RNA, is mostly involved in protein synthesis. In eukaryotes, the DNA molecules never leave the nucleus but instead use an intermediary to communicate with the rest of the cell. This intermediary is the messenger RNA (mRNA). Other types of RNA—like rRNA, tRNA, and microRNA—are involved in protein synthesis and its regulation.
DNA and RNA are made up of monomers known as nucleotides. The nucleotides combine with each other to form a polynucleotide: DNA or RNA. Each nucleotide is made up of three components: a nitrogenous base, a pentose (five-carbon) sugar, and a phosphate group (Figure 1). Each nitrogenous base in a nucleotide is attached to a sugar molecule, which is attached to one or more phosphate groups.
The nitrogenous bases are organic molecules and are so named because they contain carbon and nitrogen. They are bases because they contain an amino group that has the potential of binding an extra hydrogen, and thus, decreasing the hydrogen ion concentration in its environment, making it more basic. Each nucleotide in DNA contains one of four possible nitrogenous bases: adenine (A), guanine (G) cytosine (C), and thymine (T).
Adenine and guanine are classified as purines. The primary structure of a purine consists of two carbon-nitrogen rings. Cytosine, thymine, and uracil are classified as pyrimidines which have a single carbon-nitrogen ring as their primary structure (Figure 1). Each of these basic carbon-nitrogen rings has different functional groups attached to it. In molecular biology shorthand, the nitrogenous bases are simply known by their symbols A, T, G, C, and U. DNA contains A, T, G, and C whereas RNA contains A, U, G, and C.
The pentose sugar in DNA is deoxyribose and in RNA it is ribose (Figure 1). The difference between the sugars is the presence of the hydroxyl group on the second carbon of the ribose and hydrogen on the second carbon of the deoxyribose. The carbon atoms of the sugar molecule are numbered as 1′, 2′, 3′, 4′, and 5′ (1′ is read as “one prime”). The phosphate residue is attached to the hydroxyl group of the 5′ carbon of one sugar and the hydroxyl group of the 3′ carbon of the sugar of the next nucleotide, which forms a 5′–3′ phosphodiester linkage. The phosphodiester linkage is not formed by simple dehydration reaction like the other linkages connecting monomers in macromolecules: its formation involves the removal of two phosphate groups. A polynucleotide may have thousands of such phosphodiester linkages.