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8: Nucleic Acids

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  • The blueprint for the reproduction and the maintenance of each organism is found in the nuclei of its cells, concentrated in elongated, threadlike structures called chromosomes. These complex structures, consisting of DNA and proteins, contain the basic units of heredity, called genes. The number of chromosomes (and genes) varies with each species. Human body cells have 23 pairs of chromosomes having 20,000–40,000 different genes.

    Sperm and egg cells contain only a single copy of each chromosome; that is, they contain only one member of each chromosome pair. Thus, in sexual reproduction, the entire complement of chromosomes is achieved only when an egg and sperm combine. A new individual receives half its hereditary material from each parent. Calling the unit of heredity a “gene” merely gives it a name. But what really are genes and how is the information they contain expressed? One definition of a gene is that it is a segment of DNA that constitutes the code for a specific polypeptide. If genes are segments of DNA, we need to learn more about the structure and physiological function of DNA. We begin by looking at the small molecules needed to form DNA and RNA (ribonucleic acid)—the nucleotides.

    • 8.1: Nucleotides
      Nucleotides are composed of phosphoric acid, a pentose sugar (ribose or deoxyribose), and a nitrogen-containing base (adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, or uracil).​​​​​​​ Ribonucleotides contain ribose, while deoxyribonucleotides contain deoxyribose.
    • 8.2: Nucleic Acid Structure
      DNA is the nucleic acid that stores genetic information. RNA is the nucleic acid responsible for using the genetic information in DNA to produce proteins. Nucleotides are joined together to form nucleic acids through the phosphate group of one nucleotide connecting in an ester linkage to the OH group on the third carbon atom of the sugar unit of a second nucleotide. Nucleic acid sequences are written starting with the nucleotide having a free phosphate group (the 5′ end).
    • 8.3: Replication and Expression of Genetic Information
      In DNA replication, each strand of the original DNA serves as a template for the synthesis of a complementary strand. DNA polymerase is the primary enzyme needed for replication. In transcription, a segment of DNA serves as a template for the synthesis of an RNA sequence. RNA polymerase is the primary enzyme needed for transcription. Three types of RNA are formed during transcription: mRNA, rRNA, and tRNA.
    • 8.4: Protein Synthesis and the Genetic Code
      In translation, the information in mRNA directs the order of amino acids in protein synthesis. A set of three nucleotides (codon) codes for a specific amino acid.
    • 8.5: Mutations and Genetic Diseases
      The nucleotide sequence in DNA may be modified either spontaneously or from exposure to heat, radiation, or certain chemicals and can lead to mutations. Mutagens are the chemical or physical agents that cause mutations. Genetic diseases are hereditary diseases that occur because of a mutation in a critical gene.
    • 8.6: Viruses
      Viruses are very small infectious agents that contain either DNA or RNA as their genetic material. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
    • 8.7: Nucleic Acids (Exercises)
      Problems and select solutions for the chapter.
    • 8.8: Nucleic Acids (Summary)
      To ensure that you understand the material in this chapter, you should review the meanings of the bold terms in the following summary and ask yourself how they relate to the topics in the chapter.