Home Chemistry Biochemistry Nucleic Acids

Nucleic Acids

What are Nucleic Acids?

Nucleic acids are biopolymers, macromolecules that carry genetic information and participate in protein synthesis. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) are the two classes of nucleic acids for all known forms of life.

Nucleic acids, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) structure, sequence, discovery, and functions of nucleic acid

They are long-chain polymers composed of nucleotides. These nucleotides are the monomer components that contain a sugar unit, a phosphate group, and a nitrogenous base.

When the sugar unit is ribose, the polymer is RNA but if the sugar unit is deoxyribose, the polymer is DNA. The sugars and phosphates in nucleic acids are connected to each other in an alternating chain to form a sugar-phosphate backbone through phosphodiester linkages.

Discovery of Nucleic Acid

Nucleic acid was first discovered in 1869 by Swiss biochemist Friedrich Miescher and gave its first name nuclein. He gave its first name nuclein because he had isolated it from the nucleus of white blood cells.

The compound that was isolated was neither a protein nor lipid or carbohydrate. Therefore, it was a unique type of biomolecule.

In the early 1880s, Albrecht Kossel purified the substance and identified its acidic properties. A few years later, he also explored the chemistry of nuclein and identified the nucleobases found in nuclein. It contains organic bases adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine.

The term nucleic acid was first used by Richard Altmann at a time when DNA and RNA were not differentiated. In 1889, he removed the proteins from the nuclein found in yeast cells and named the rest material nucleic acid.

In about 1910, it was not realized that there were two types of nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) found in living organisms. Modern research on nucleic acid stepped forward when James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. This type of research on nucleic acid constitutes a major part of modern biochemistry, genome forensic science, and medical research.

Types of Nucleic Acids

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) are the two most important types of nucleic acids found in all living cells. These nucleic acids play a key factor in transferring genetic information from one generation to the next generation.

Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA)

Like other biomolecules (RNA and proteins, carbohydrates), DNA is one of the most important biopolymers or macromolecules that are essential for all known forms of life.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is one of the most important nucleic acids that contain the genetic instructions for the development and functioning of all known living organisms. The DNA segments which carry genetic information in living organisms are called genes. The sequences in nucleic acid DNA are used for regulating this genetic information.

Structure of DNA Molecule

DNA is a biopolymer that is made up of monomeric units called nucleotides. A nucleotide of such nucleic acid contains a 5-carbon sugar (deoxyribose), a nitrogenous base, and one or more phosphate groups.

Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) Types of Nucleic Acids with structure, sequence, discovery, and functions

The building blocks of nucleotide consist of three phosphate groups but during DNA synthesis two are lost. Therefore, the DNA strand contains one phosphate group per nucleotide.

There are four different bases found in DNA molecules. These are double-ring heterocyclic purine bases (adenine and guanine) and single-ring pyrimidine bases (cytosine and thymine).

Each monomer of deoxyribose has a phosphate group linked to the 5′ carbon atom. The nitrogenous base is linked to the 1′ carbon atom by N-glyosidic bonding.

Ribonucleic Acid (RNA)

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is another important class of nucleic acid that is chemically similar to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). It carries genetic information from genes into the amino acid sequences during protein synthesis.

Nucleic acids types, structure, and sequence of ribonucleic acid (RNA) structure and similarities with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

It is a polymer of ribonucleotides held together by 3, 5-phosphodiester bridges. The ribonucleotides in RNA molecules contain 5-carbon sugar ribose, a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base.

Although nucleic acid RNA has certain similarities with DNA structure, they have specific differences. The most common differences between DNA and RNA structure are

  1. The sugar in RNA is ribose but the sugar in DNA structure is deoxyribose.
  2. RNA contains the pyrimidine base uracil in place of thymine.
  3. RNA is usually a single-stranded polynucleotide but DNA gives a double-strand structure.
  4. Due to the single-strand nature, there is no specific relation between purine and pyrimidine bases.

Types of RNA

Messenger RNA (mRNA), transfer RNA (tRNA), and ribosomal RNA (rRNA) are the three major types of RNAs found in the cell and functioning during protein biosynthesis.

Besides these three RNAs, other RNAs are also present in the cells. These RNAs are

  • Heterogeneous nuclear RNA (hnRNA)
  • Small nuclear RNA (snRNA)
  • Small nucleolar RNA (snoRNA)
  • Small cytoplasmic RNA (scRNA)

These various types of RNAs are synthesized from DNA molecules. They are primarily involved in the process of protein biosynthesis. They are very similar in their structure and biological functions.

  • Messenger RNA (mRNA): It transfers genetic information from genes to ribosomes during protein biosynthesis.
  • Transfer RNA (tRNA):  Transfer amino acid to mRNA for making protein biomolecules for living organisms.
  • Ribosomal RNA (rRNA): It provides the structural framework for ribosomes.
  • Heterogeneous nuclear RNA (hnRNA): A precursor for mRNA.
  • Small nuclear RNA (snRNA): Involved in mRNA processing.
  • Small nucleolar RNA (snoRNA): It plays a key role in processing rRNA molecules.

Artificial Nucleic Acids

Artificial nucleic acids are structurally similar to naturally occurring RNA and DNA. The most common artificial nucleic acids are peptide nucleic acid (PNA), glycol nucleic acid (GNA), threose nucleic acid (TNA), and hexitol nucleic acids (HNA).

These artificial nucleic acids differ from natural DNA and RNA by changes in the backbone of the molecule. Xeno nucleic acids (XNA) are artificial analogs that consist solely of synthetic nucleotide monomers but the chemical composition of the sugar moiety has been changed. They are important to investigate possible scenarios of the origin of life.

Nucleic Acid Sequence

A nucleic acid sequence is a succession of nitrogenous bases (pyrimidines and purines) within the nucleotides. One DNA or RNA molecule differs from another DNA or RNA molecule primarily on the basis of the sequence of nucleotides.

The letters A, C, G, and T, represent the four nucleotide bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thiamine) of a DNA strand. They are covalently linked to a phosphodiester backbone. One sequence is complementary to another sequence. For example, the complementary sequence of TTAC is GTAA. Hence the base on each position is complementary ( A = T, C = G) but reverse in order.

A gene is a linear nucleotide sequence of a DNA molecule containing the information required to synthesize a macromolecule having a specific cellular function. The determination of nucleotide sequence in a DNA molecule is the basic and fundamental requirement of biotechnology. Therefore, millions of nucleotides of nucleic acids are sequenced daily at genome centers and smaller laboratories or test centers.

DNA sequencing is important to understand the functions of genes and the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. The accurate knowledge of DNA sequences is also useful for DNA cloning and gene manipulation.

Structure of Nucleic acids

Nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) are the vital constituents of living organisms. They are long-chain polymers of nucleotides (polynucleotides) held by 3’ and 5’-phosphate bridges. Without an attached phosphate group, the sugar unit attached to one of the bases is called nucleoside.

Nucleotides are basic building blocks or monomeric units of nucleic acid. Besides these, nucleotides also perform various biological activities in living organisms,

  • Purine and pyrimidine nucleotides can control various biological activities such as energy metabolism, protein synthesis, and controlling enzyme activities.
  • Nucleotides are the structural components of some coenzymes (FAD, NAD) of B vitamins.
  • Sugar derivatives of nucleotides namely UDP-glucose participate in the synthesis of glycogen.
  • In medical science, various synthetic analogs of nucleotides are employed in the treatment of cancer, and AIDS, and the impression of immune response during organ transplantation.

Bases in Nucleic Acids

Purines and pyrimidines are two major types of nitrogenous bases found in nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) structures. The nitrogenous bases found in nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) are aromatic heterocyclic compounds.

The structures of these major purines and pyrimidines bases in DNA and RNA are shown below the picture,

DNA and RNA contain the same purine bases namely adenine (A) and guanine (G). However, the pyrimidine base cytosine is found in both DNA and RNA molecules.

The nucleic acid differs with respect to the second pyrimidine base. DNA contains thymine (T) whereas RNA contains uracil (U) in its structure. The structure of thymine and uracil differ by the presence or absence of the methyl group.

Sugars in Nucleic Acids

The five-carbon organic monosaccharides (pentoses) are found in the nucleic acid structure. RNA contains D-ribose while DNA contains D-deoxyribose in their structure.

The pentose sugar in DNA differs from the sugar of RNA by the absence of a hydroxyl group (―OH) present on the 2′ carbon of the sugar unit. Therefore, ribose and deoxyribose differ in structure at the C2 position. Deoxyribose in DNA has one oxygen less at C2 compared to ribose in RNA.

Nucleic Acid Synthesis

During normal cell metabolism, RNA is constantly being made and broken down but purine and pyrimidine residues are reused by several salvage pathways to make more genetic material.

Nucleotides in DNA and RNA are synthesized from readily available materials found in the cell. All nucleotides found in living organisms contain a sugar, a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. The ribose phosphate portion of nucleotides in nucleic acid is synthesized from glucose via the pentose phosphate pathway.

The six-membered heterocyclic pyrimidine ring is synthesized first and subsequently attached to the ribose phosphate. The two heterocyclic purine rings are also synthesized and attached to the ribose phosphate during the assembly of adenine or guanine nucleosides.

  • For RNA synesis: A specialized enzyme, kinase can add two phosphate groups from adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to form ribonucleoside triphosphate from ribonucleoside phosphate. The ribonucleoside triphosphate is an immediate precursor of RNA.
  • For DNA synthesis: The 2′-hydroxyl group is removed from the ribonucleoside diphosphate to form deoxyribonucleoside diphosphate. Deoxyribonucleoside triphosphate (an immediate precursor of DNA) is formed by the addition of another phosphate group from ATP by enzyme kinase.

Functions of Nucleic Acids

Two nucleic acids such as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) are found in living things that store, translate, and pass the genetic information from one generation to the next generation.

They are universal to all forms of life and found in the nucleus of eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, and various viruses. The mitochondria of eukaryotic cells also contain some type of DNA. It is called mitochondrial DNA (mDNA).

Nucleic acids are large biomolecules that play various essential biological functions in living cells. The major biological functions of nucleic acids are

  • Nucleic acids storage and expression of genomic information in living organisms.
  • Nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) are the main information-carrying molecules of the cell which direct the process of protein synthesis.
  • DNA is the chemical basis of heredity and it may be regarded as the reserve bank of genetic information.
  • DNA is extensively responsible for maintaining the identities of different species of organisms over millions of years.
  • The nucleic acid DNA is organized into genes, the fundamental units of genetic information. The genes in nucleic acids are important in encoding the information for making proteins in living organisms.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where are nucleic acids found in the cell?

Nucleic acids were named for their initial discovery within the nucleus by Swiss biochemist Friedrich Miescher. He gave its first name nuclein because he had isolated nucleic acids from the nucleus of white blood cells.

Nucleic acids are now known to be found in all forms of life including within bacteria, archaea, mitochondria, chloroplasts, and viruses. Most living cells contain both DNA and RNA while viruses contain either DNA or RNA. Nucleic acids are also generated within the laboratory by the action of enzyme DNA and RNA polymerases.

Why are nucleic acids important for organisms?

Nucleic acids are large biomolecules that play various essential roles in cells of living organisms. The storage and expression of genomic information is a major function of nucleic acids.

The nucleotides in nucleic acid (DNA) carry genetic information which is read by cells to make the RNA and proteins by which living things function.

Who discovered nucleic acid?

Nucleic acid was first discovered by Swiss biochemist Friedrich Miescher in 1869. He gave its first name nuclein because he had isolated it from the nucleus of white blood cells.

In 1889, Richard Altmann created the term nucleic acid when DNA and RNA were not differentiated from each other. The first X-ray diffraction blueprint of DNA was derived in 1938 by Astbury and Bell.

How nucleic acids are formed?

Nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) are formed by repeated synthesis reactions between nucleotides that contain a sugar unit, a phosphate group, and a nitrogenous base.

They are linked to each other by a phosphodiester linkage between the phosphate group of one nucleotide and the sugar unit of another nucleotide.

Which nucleic acid is translated to make a protein?

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a nucleic acid that is translated to make a protein. During translation, a messenger RNA can read the information in a cell and use it to build a protein.

How are nucleic acids and proteins related?

Nucleic acid, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), encodes the information in cells to synthesize proteins in the organisms.

A related type of nucleic acid, called ribonucleic acid (RNA) can also play an important role in protein synthesis. These two nucleic acids determine the structural sequence of amino acids and the biological functions of the protein.