Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

14.5: DNA Replication in Eukaryotes

Skills to Develop

  • Discuss the similarities and differences between DNA replication in eukaryotes and prokaryotes
  • State the role of telomerase in DNA replication

Eukaryotic genomes are much more complex and larger in size than prokaryotic genomes. The human genome has three billion base pairs per haploid set of chromosomes, and 6 billion base pairs are replicated during the S phase of the cell cycle. There are multiple origins of replication on the eukaryotic chromosome; humans can have up to 100,000 origins of replication. The rate of replication is approximately 100 nucleotides per second, much slower than prokaryotic replication. In yeast, which is a eukaryote, special sequences known as Autonomously Replicating Sequences (ARS) are found on the chromosomes. These are equivalent to the origin of replication in E. coli.

The number of DNA polymerases in eukaryotes is much more than prokaryotes: 14 are known, of which five are known to have major roles during replication and have been well studied. They are known as pol α, pol β, pol γ, pol δ, and pol ε.

The essential steps of replication are the same as in prokaryotes. Before replication can start, the DNA has to be made available as template. Eukaryotic DNA is bound to basic proteins known as histones to form structures called nucleosomes. The chromatin (the complex between DNA and proteins) may undergo some chemical modifications, so that the DNA may be able to slide off the proteins or be accessible to the enzymes of the DNA replication machinery. At the origin of replication, a pre-replication complex is made with other initiator proteins. Other proteins are then recruited to start the replication process (Table 14.5.1).

A helicase using the energy from ATP hydrolysis opens up the DNA helix. Replication forks are formed at each replication origin as the DNA unwinds. The opening of the double helix causes over-winding, or supercoiling, in the DNA ahead of the replication fork. These are resolved with the action of topoisomerases. Primers are formed by the enzyme primase, and using the primer, DNA pol can start synthesis. While the leading strand is continuously synthesized by the enzyme pol δ, the lagging strand is synthesized by pol ε. A sliding clamp protein known as PCNA (Proliferating Cell Nuclear Antigen) holds the DNA pol in place so that it does not slide off the DNA. RNase H removes the RNA primer, which is then replaced with DNA nucleotides. The Okazaki fragments in the lagging strand are joined together after the replacement of the RNA primers with DNA. The gaps that remain are sealed by DNA ligase, which forms the phosphodiester bond.

Telomere replication

Unlike prokaryotic chromosomes, eukaryotic chromosomes are linear. As you’ve learned, the enzyme DNA pol can add nucleotides only in the 5' to 3' direction. In the leading strand, synthesis continues until the end of the chromosome is reached. On the lagging strand, DNA is synthesized in short stretches, each of which is initiated by a separate primer. When the replication fork reaches the end of the linear chromosome, there is no place for a primer to be made for the DNA fragment to be copied at the end of the chromosome. These ends thus remain unpaired, and over time these ends may get progressively shorter as cells continue to divide.

The ends of the linear chromosomes are known as telomeres, which have repetitive sequences that code for no particular gene. In a way, these telomeres protect the genes from getting deleted as cells continue to divide. In humans, a six base pair sequence, TTAGGG, is repeated 100 to 1000 times. The discovery of the enzyme telomerase (Figure 14.5.1) helped in the understanding of how chromosome ends are maintained. The telomerase enzyme contains a catalytic part and a built-in RNA template. It attaches to the end of the chromosome, and complementary bases to the RNA template are added on the 3' end of the DNA strand. Once the 3' end of the lagging strand template is sufficiently elongated, DNA polymerase can add the nucleotides complementary to the ends of the chromosomes. Thus, the ends of the chromosomes are replicated.

Figure 14.5.1: The ends of linear chromosomes are maintained by the action of the telomerase enzyme.

Telomerase is typically active in germ cells and adult stem cells. It is not active in adult somatic cells. For her discovery of telomerase and its action, Elizabeth Blackburn (FIgure 14.5.2) received the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2009.

Figure 14.5.2: Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 Nobel Laureate, is the scientist who discovered how telomerase works. (credit: US Embassy Sweden)

Telomerase and Aging

Cells that undergo cell division continue to have their telomeres shortened because most somatic cells do not make telomerase. This essentially means that telomere shortening is associated with aging. With the advent of modern medicine, preventative health care, and healthier lifestyles, the human life span has increased, and there is an increasing demand for people to look younger and have a better quality of life as they grow older.

In 2010, scientists found that telomerase can reverse some age-related conditions in mice. This may have potential in regenerative medicine.1 Telomerase-deficient mice were used in these studies; these mice have tissue atrophy, stem cell depletion, organ system failure, and impaired tissue injury responses. Telomerase reactivation in these mice caused extension of telomeres, reduced DNA damage, reversed neurodegeneration, and improved the function of the testes, spleen, and intestines. Thus, telomere reactivation may have potential for treating age-related diseases in humans.

Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled cell division of abnormal cells. The cells accumulate mutations, proliferate uncontrollably, and can migrate to different parts of the body through a process called metastasis. Scientists have observed that cancerous cells have considerably shortened telomeres and that telomerase is active in these cells. Interestingly, only after the telomeres were shortened in the cancer cells did the telomerase become active. If the action of telomerase in these cells can be inhibited by drugs during cancer therapy, then the cancerous cells could potentially be stopped from further division.

Table 14.5.1: Difference between Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Replication
Property Prokaryotes Eukaryotes
Origin of replication Single Multiple
Rate of replication 1000 nucleotides/s 50 to 100 nucleotides/s
DNA polymerase types 5 14
Telomerase Not present Present
RNA primer removal DNA pol I RNase H
Strand elongation DNA pol III Pol δ, pol ε
Sliding clamp Sliding clamp PCNA


Replication in eukaryotes starts at multiple origins of replication. The mechanism is quite similar to prokaryotes. A primer is required to initiate synthesis, which is then extended by DNA polymerase as it adds nucleotides one by one to the growing chain. The leading strand is synthesized continuously, whereas the lagging strand is synthesized in short stretches called Okazaki fragments. The RNA primers are replaced with DNA nucleotides; the DNA remains one continuous strand by linking the DNA fragments with DNA ligase. The ends of the chromosomes pose a problem as polymerase is unable to extend them without a primer. Telomerase, an enzyme with an inbuilt RNA template, extends the ends by copying the RNA template and extending one end of the chromosome. DNA polymerase can then extend the DNA using the primer. In this way, the ends of the chromosomes are protected.

Review Questions

The ends of the linear chromosomes are maintained by

  1. helicase
  2. primase
  3. DNA pol
  4. telomerase


Free Response

How do the linear chromosomes in eukaryotes ensure that its ends are replicated completely?

Telomerase has an inbuilt RNA template that extends the 3' end, so primer is synthesized and extended. Thus, the ends are protected.


  1. 1 Jaskelioff et al., “Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice,” Nature 469 (2011): 102-7.


enzyme that contains a catalytic part and an inbuilt RNA template; it functions to maintain telomeres at chromosome ends
DNA at the end of linear chromosomes


  • The OpenStax College name, OpenStax College logo, OpenStax College book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the creative commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University. For questions regarding this license, please contact Download for free at