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14: DNA Structure and Function

Each human cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes: one set of chromosomes is inherited from the mother and the other set is inherited from the father. There is also a mitochondrial genome, inherited exclusively from the mother, which can be involved in inherited genetic disorders. On each chromosome, there are thousands of genes that are responsible for determining the genotype and phenotype of the individual. A gene is defined as a sequence of DNA that codes for a functional product. The human haploid genome contains 3 billion base pairs and has between 20,000 and 25,000 functional genes.

  • 14.0: Prelude to DNA Structure and Function
    The three letters “DNA” have now become synonymous with crime solving, paternity testing, human identification, and genetic testing. DNA can be retrieved from hair, blood, or saliva. Each person’s DNA is unique, and it is possible to detect differences between individuals within a species on the basis of these unique features.
  • 14.1: Historical Basis of Modern Understanding
    Modern understandings of DNA have evolved from the discovery of nucleic acid to the development of the double-helix model. In the 1860s, Friedrich Miescher, a physician by profession, was the first person to isolate phosphate-rich chemicals from white blood cells or leukocytes. He named these chemicals (which would eventually be known as RNA and DNA) nuclein because they were isolated from the nuclei of the cells.
  • 14.2: DNA Structure and Sequencing
    The building blocks of DNA are nucleotides. The important components of the nucleotide are a nitrogenous base, deoxyribose (5-carbon sugar), and a phosphate group. The nucleotide is named depending on the nitrogenous base. The nitrogenous base can be a purine such as adenine (A) and guanine (G), or a pyrimidine such as cytosine (C) and thymine (T).
  • 14.3: Basics of DNA Replication
    The elucidation of the structure of the double helix provided a hint as to how DNA divides and makes copies of itself. This model suggests that the two strands of the double helix separate during replication, and each strand serves as a template from which the new complementary strand is copied. What was not clear was how the replication took place. There were three models suggested: conservative, semi-conservative, and dispersive.
  • 14.4: DNA Replication in Prokaryotes
    DNA replication has been extremely well studied in prokaryotes primarily because of the small size of the genome and the mutants that are available. E. coli has 4.6 million base pairs in a single circular chromosome and all of it gets replicated in approximately 42 minutes, starting from a single origin of replication and proceeding around the circle in both directions. This means that approximately 1000 nucleotides are added per second. The process is quite rapid and occurs without many mistake
  • 14.5: DNA Replication in Eukaryotes
    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
  • 14.6: DNA Repair
    DNA replication is a highly accurate process, but mistakes can occasionally occur, such as a DNA polymerase inserting a wrong base. Uncorrected mistakes may sometimes lead to serious consequences, such as cancer. Repair mechanisms correct the mistakes. In rare cases, mistakes are not corrected, leading to mutations; in other cases, repair enzymes are themselves mutated or defective.


  • Connie Rye (East Mississippi Community College), Robert Wise (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh), Vladimir Jurukovski (Suffolk County Community College), Jean DeSaix (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Jung Choi (Georgia Institute of Technology), Yael Avissar (Rhode Island College) among other contributing authors. 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