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26

Structure and Function of Nucleic Acids


GCSE

A-level

You may know that the nucleus


contains the genetic information, in
chromosomes.

You will need to know the structure of the


building blocks, or monomers, that make up
DNA.

You should remember that chromosomes


are made up of deoxyribonucleic acid
(DNA), found in the nucleus. You may also
know that chromosomes have genes that
cause individuals to be different from
each other, causing genetic variation.

You will also need to explain that these


monomers are nucleotides, which are made
up of three different molecules through
condensation reactions. It is the order, or
sequence, of these monomers that results
in variation within any population.

What is the structure of nucleic


acids?

Nucleic acids are organic molecules


containing carbon, hydrogen and
oxygen, as well as nitrogen and
phosphate groups.

Nucleic acids, such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and


RNA (ribonucleic acid), are made up of monomers called
nucleotides.
Each nucleotide is made up of three parts:
i.

a pentose or deoxyribose sugar

ii. a phosphate group


iii. a nitrogenous or organic base
Simplied diagram

Detailed structure
NH2
N
H

phosphate
O-

base
-O
deoxyribose sugar

phosphate
group

P
O

C
N

C
C

C
N

N
C

nitrogenous base
CH2 O
H
H
H
H
OH OH
sugar

In all DNA molecules, the pentose sugar and the phosphate group remain the same and are
sometimes called the sugar-phosphate backbone. It is the nitrogenous base that is the different
component in different nucleotides.

How many different nucleotides are there within DNA?


There are four different nucleotides in the DNA molecule, with four different nitrogenous bases:

Adenine (A)

Guanine (G)

Cytosine (C)

Thymine (T)

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}
}

these are double rings purine

these are single rings pyrimidine

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Structure and Function of Nucleic Acids

What is the structure of DNA?

DNA consists of two polynucleotide strands linked by H-bonds.


The complementary base pairing rule 
Adenine  Thymine
Guanine + Cytosine
hydrogen-bonded
bases

nucleotide bases

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The nucleotides are linked together by condensation reactions to form a polynucleotide;


therefore DNA is a polymer.

A
C

phosphate
backbone

G
A

T
G

sugar-phosphate
backbone

T
G

A
C

Within DNA, A must always pair with T, so they are


always present in identical amounts. The same is true
for G and C. For example, if a sample of DNA has 22%
base A, then base T must also be 22%. The remaining
56% must be made up of bases G and C together,
meaning each is 28%.

Each species is unique, or genetically different, and will have different amounts of base
pairing.

The exact order, or sequence, of the different bases along the polynucleotide chain/strand
varies, and this forms the genetic information stored by the DNA. The two strands are
twisted and form a double helix.

DNA is a large stable molecule, highly coiled and condensed, which remains constant in
the cell.

In order to form the hydrogen bonds,


the two polynucleotide chains are
anti-parallel that is, the strands run in
opposite directions.

What is the function of DNA?

Contains coded information in the form of genes.

Genes determine the code for proteins.

DNA determines the characteristics for the organism.

Passes genetic information from one generation to the next.

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Structure and Function of Nucleic Acids


How is RNA different from DNA?
Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is composed of nucleotides, but is single stranded.
The main difference is that the pentose ribose has a hydroxyl group on carbon atom 2. The purine
bases are adenine (A) and guanine (G). The pyrimidine bases are cytosine (C) and uracil (U).
There are three types of RNA:
1

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is made in the nucleus and moves into the cytoplasm. The
length and base sequence varies. It is involved in protein synthesis.

Transfer RNA (tRNA) is single stranded and clover leaf shaped. Many different types of
tRNA are found in the cytoplasm. It is also involved in protein synthesis. It has three bases,
called the anticodon, which codes for an amino acid attached to one end.
amino acid
attached here

OH

5 end

H-bonds

D
G

D G A

C U C G

(
$
(
(
"
6
6
U

G G A G A G C G
C
C
A
G
A
C
U
G

3 end

A
C
C
"
$
(
$
6
6
"
"

C U
G A C A C

G
C U G U G
C
C
T s
U
G
G
G A
modied
G
nucleotides
U
C
s
A
H
anticodon loop
A A

Anticodon

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Ribosomal RNA (rRNA) is made in the nucleolus and is part of the ribosome in
cytoplasm.

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Structure and Function of Nucleic Acids

Task 1
Complete the table below to summarise the differences between DNA and RNA.
Feature

DNA

RNA

Number of polynucleotide
chains

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Tasks and Questions

Nucleotide bases
Pentose sugar
Type of nucleic acid present
Location in cell

Task 2
Complete the missing complementary bases for the following double helix.
3

Questions
1

What are the three components of a nucleotide?

Name the bases that are classed as pyrimidines?

What type of bonds are formed between bases in DNA?

How many different types of RNA are present in a cell?

What is the name given to the coiled/twisted structure of DNA?

Name the monomer of DNA.

If a sample of DNA has 15% base T, how much G is there?

What is the function of tRNA?

What are the nitrogenous bases in DNA?

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Structure and Function of Nucleic Acids

Taking it Further
Make more detailed notes about the structure and functions of nucleic acids. You may find it
useful to draw the structure of a nucleotide and to list the differences between DNA and RNA in
a table.
The questions below can help you to structure and organise your notes. Use your course text
book to add further information.
What is DNA and what is its role?
List three differences between DNA and RNA.
What is the base pairing rule?
What two components make the backbone of the strand, and what links the two strands of
DNA?
If a sample of DNA had 19% of cytosine nucleotide, what percentage of its nucleotides will
be adenine? How can this be worked out?
Find out about the roles of different RNA nucleotides in protein synthesis.
What does anti-parallel mean?

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