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21.9: Nucleic Acids

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Nucleic Acids

21.9: Nucleic Acids

Nucleic acids are the most important macromolecules for the continuity of life. They carry the cell's genetic blueprint and carry instructions for its functioning.


The two main types of nucleic acids are deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). DNA is the genetic material in all living organisms, ranging from single-celled bacteria to multicellular mammals. It is in the nucleus of eukaryotes and in the organelles, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. In prokaryotes, the DNA is not enclosed in a membranous envelope.

The cell's entire genetic content is 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 can contain tens of thousands of genes. Many genes contain the information to make proteins. 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. 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 consist of monomers called nucleotides. Three components comprise each nucleotide: a nitrogenous base, a pentose (five-carbon) sugar, and a phosphate group. Each nitrogenous base in a nucleotide is attached to a sugar molecule, which is attached to one or more phosphate groups. The nitrogenous bases, important components of nucleotides, 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 purine's primary structure is 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, we know the nitrogenous bases 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, the sugar is ribose. The difference between the sugars is the presence of the hydroxyl group on the ribose's second carbon and hydrogen on the deoxyribose's second carbon. The phosphate residue attaches 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.

DNA Double-Helix Structure

DNA has a double-helix structure. The sugar and phosphate lie on the outside of the helix, forming the DNA's backbone. The nitrogenous bases are stacked in the interior, like a pair of staircase steps. Hydrogen bonds bind the pairs to each other. Every base pair in the double helix is separated from the next base pair by 0.34 nm. The helix's two strands run in opposite directions, meaning that the 5′ carbon end of one strand will face the 3′ carbon end of its matching strand. Only certain types of base pairing are allowed- A can pair with T, and G can pair with C. This is the complementary base rule. In other words, the DNA strands are complementary to each other.


Ribonucleic acid, or RNA, is mainly involved in the process of protein synthesis under the direction of DNA. RNA is usually single-stranded and consists of ribonucleotides that are linked by phosphodiester bonds.

There are four major types of RNA: messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA), transfer RNA (tRNA), and microRNA (miRNA). The first, mRNA, carries the message from DNA, which controls all of the cellular activities in a cell. If a cell requires a certain protein, the gene for it turns “on” and the messenger RNA is synthesized in the nucleus. The RNA base sequence is complementary to the DNA's coding sequence from which it has been copied. In the cytoplasm, the mRNA interacts with ribosomes and other cellular machinery.

The mRNA is read in sets of three bases known as codons. Each codon codes for a single amino acid. In this way, the mRNA is read and the protein product is made. Ribosomal RNA (rRNA) is a major constituent of ribosomes on which the mRNA binds. The rRNA ensures the proper alignment of the mRNA and the ribosomes. The ribosome's rRNA also has an enzymatic activity (peptidyl transferase) and catalyzes peptide bond formation between two aligned amino acids. Transfer RNA (tRNA) is one of the smallest of the four types of RNA, usually 70–90 nucleotides long. It carries the correct amino acid to the protein synthesis site. It is the base pairing between the tRNA and mRNA that allows for the correct amino acid to insert itself in the polypeptide chain. MicroRNAs are the smallest RNA molecules, and their role involves regulating gene expression by interfering with the expression of certain mRNA messages.

Even though the RNA is single-stranded, most RNA types show extensive intramolecular base pairing between complementary sequences, creating a predictable three-dimensional structure essential for their function.

This text is adapted from Openstax, Biology 2e, Chapter 3.5: Nucleic Acids.

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