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3.1: DNA, the Genetic Material

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Where's the instructions?

How do your cells know what to do? Just like builders have blueprints to tell them how to build a house, your cells also have instructions. Your cells' instructions are molecules of DNA.

What is DNA?

DNA is the material that makes up our chromosomes and stores our genetic information. When you build a house, you need a blueprint, a set of instructions that tells you how to build. The DNA is like the blueprint for living organisms. The genetic information is a set of instructions that tell your cells what to do.

DNA is an abbreviation for deoxyribonucleic acid . As you may recall, nucleic acids are a type of macromolecule that store information. The deoxyribo part of the name refers to the name of the sugar that is contained in DNA, deoxyribose. DNA may provide the instructions to make up all living things, but it is actually a very simple molecule. DNA is made of a very long chain of nucleotides. In fact, in you, the smallest DNA molecule has well over 20 million nucleotides.


Nucleotides are composed of three main parts:

  1. a phosphate group.
  2. a 5-carbon sugar (deoxyribose in DNA).
  3. a nitrogen-containing base.

The only difference between each nucleotide is the identity of the base. There are only four possible bases that make up each DNA nucleotide: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytosine (C).

The Genetic Code

The various sequences of the four nucleotide bases make up the genetic code of your cells. It may seem strange that there are only four letters in the “alphabet” of DNA. But since your chromosomes contain millions of nucleotides, there are many, many different combinations possible with those four letters.

But how do all these pieces fit together? James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for piecing together the structure of DNA. Together with the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, they determined that DNA is made of two strands of nucleotides formed into a double helix , or a two-stranded spiral, with the sugar and phosphate groups on the outside, and the paired bases connecting the two strands on the inside of the helix ( Figure below ).

DNA’s three-dimensional structure is a double helix. The hydrogen bonds between the bases at the center of the helix hold the helix together.


The bases in DNA do not pair randomly. When Erwin Chargaff looked closely at the bases in DNA, he noticed that the percentage of adenine (A) in the DNA always equaled the percentage of thymine (T), and the percentage of guanine (G) always equaled the percentage of cytosine (C). Watson and Crick’s model explained this result by suggesting that A always pairs with T, and G always pairs with C in the DNA helix. Therefore A and T, and G and C, are "complementary bases," or bases that always pair together, known as a base-pair . The base-pairing rules state that A will always bind to T, and G will always bind to C ( Figure below ). For example, if one DNA strand reads ATGCCAGT, the other strand will be made up of the complementary bases: TACGGTCA.

Nucleic Acid

The chemical structure of DNA includes a chain of nucleotides consisting of a 5-carbon sugar, a phosphate group, and a nitrogen base. Notice how the sugar and phosphate form the backbone of DNA (strands highlighted in pink), with the hydrogen bonds between the bases joining the two strands.


  • base-pair : Bases in DNA that complement each other and are linked by hydrogen bonds.
  • chromosome : DNA wound around proteins; the chromosome forms during prophase of mitosis and meiosis (prophase I).
  • DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) : Nucleic acid that is the genetic material of all organisms.
  • double helix : Shape of DNA; a double spiral, similar to a spiral staircase.
  • nucleic acid : Class of organic compound; nucleic acid includes DNA and RNA.
  • nucleotide : Units that make up DNA; the nucleotide consists of a 5-carbon sugar, a phosphate group, and a nitrogen-containing base.


  • DNA stores the genetic information of the cell in the sequence of its 4 bases: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine.
  • DNA is made of a long chain of nucleotides consisting of a 5-carbon sugar, a phosphate group, and nitrogen-containing base.


Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Where is nuclear DNA located in a eukaryotic organism?
  2. What is another name for the "sentences" that DNA encodes?
  3. What does DNA use for its encoded sentences rather than letters?
  1. How long does it take a human cell to copy the DNA in its nucleus before it divides?
  2. How many new cells does your body produce every day? Why do you think your body needs to keep producing cells?
  3. How many hydrogen bonds form between guanine and cytosine? How many hydrogen bonds form between adenine and thymine? Do you think this relationship helps minimize errors? Explain your reasoning.


  1. Describe the structure of DNA.
  2. What does a nucleotide consist of?

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Difficulty Level:

At Grade


7 , 8

Date Created:

Nov 29, 2012

Last Modified:

Oct 27, 2014
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