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Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA)


DNA directs a cell's activities by specifying the structures of its proteins and by regulating which proteins and how much are produced, and where. In so doing, it never leaves the nucleus. Each human cell contains about 6 ft (2 m) of highly condensed DNA which encodes some 50,000–100,000 genes. If a particular protein is to be made, the DNA segment corresponding to the gene for that protein acts as a template, a pattern, for the synthesis of an RNA molecule in a process known as transcription. This messenger RNA molecule travels from the nucleus to the cytoplasm where it in turn acts as the template for the construction of the protein by the protein assembly apparatus of the cell. This latter process is known as translation and requires an adaptor molecule, transfer RNA, which translates the genetic code of DNA into the language of proteins.

Eventually, when a cell divides, its DNA must be copied so that each daughter cell will have a complete set of genetic instructions. The structure of DNA is perfectly suited to this process. The two intertwined strands unwind, exposing their bases, which then pair with bases on free nucleotides present in the cell. The bases pair only in a certain combination; adenine (A) always pairs with thymine (T) and cytosine (C) always pairs with guanine (G). The sequence of bases along one strand of DNA therefore determines the sequence of bases in the newly forming complementary strand. An enzyme then joins the free nucleotides to complete the new strand. Since the two new DNA strands that result are identical to the two originals, the cell can pass along an exact copy of its DNA to each daughter cell.

Sex cells, the eggs and sperm, contain half the number of chromosomes as other cells. When the egg and sperm fuse during fertilization, they form the first cell of a new individual with the complete complement of DNA—46 chromosomes. Each cell (except the sex cells) in the new person carries DNA identical to that in the fertilized egg cell. In this way the DNA of both parents is passed from one generation to the next. Thus, DNA plays a crucial role in the propagation of life.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) - History, Structure, Function, Replication Of Dna, The Genetic Code, Expression Of Genetic Information