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2.5.3: DNA and RNA

DNA and RNA are nucleic acids that carry out cellular processes, especially the regulation and expression of genes.


Describe the structure of nucleic acids and the types of molecules that contain them


Key Points

  • The two main types of nucleic acids are DNA and RNA.
  • Both DNA and RNA are made from nucleotides, each containing a five-carbon sugar backbone, a phosphate group, and a nitrogen base.
  • DNA provides the code for the cell ‘s activities, while RNA converts that code into proteins to carry out cellular functions.
  • The sequence of nitrogen bases (A, T, C, G) in DNA is what forms an organism’s traits.
  • The nitrogen bases A and T (or U in RNA) always go together and C and G always go together, forming the 5′-3′ phosphodiester linkage found in the nucleic acid molecules.

Key Terms

  • nucleotide: the monomer comprising DNA or RNA molecules; consists of a nitrogenous heterocyclic base that can be a purine or pyrimidine, a five-carbon pentose sugar, and a phosphate group
  • genome: the cell’s complete genetic information packaged as a double-stranded DNA molecule
  • monomer: A relatively small molecule which can be covalently bonded to other monomers to form a polymer.

Types of Nucleic Acids

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:

  1. a nitrogenous base
  2. a pentose (five-carbon) sugar
  3. a phosphate group

Each nitrogenous base in a nucleotide is attached to a sugar molecule, which is attached to one or more phosphate groups.


DNA and RNA: A nucleotide is made up of three components: a nitrogenous base, a pentose sugar, and one or more phosphate groups. Carbon residues in the pentose are numbered 1′ through 5′ (the prime distinguishes these residues from those in the base, which are numbered without using a prime notation). The base is attached to the 1′ position of the ribose, and the phosphate is attached to the 5′ position. When a polynucleotide is formed, the 5′ phosphate of the incoming nucleotide attaches to the 3′ hydroxyl group at the end of the growing chain. Two types of pentose are found in nucleotides, deoxyribose (found in DNA) and ribose (found in RNA). Deoxyribose is similar in structure to ribose, but it has an H instead of an OH at the 2′ position. Bases can be divided into two categories: purines and pyrimidines. Purines have a double ring structure, and pyrimidines have a single ring.

Nitrogenous Base

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. 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.

Five-Carbon Sugar

The pentose sugar in DNA is deoxyribose and in RNA it is ribose. 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”).

Phosphate Group

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.