Exploring Biology: DNA Replication and Structure



In molecular biology, DNA replication is the biological process of producing two identical replicas of DNA from one original DNA molecule. This process occurs in all living organisms and is the basis for biological inheritance. The cell possesses the distinctive property of division, which makes replication of DNA essential. DNA is made up of a double helix of two complementary strands. During replication, these strands are separated. Each strand of the original DNA molecule then serves as a template for the production of its counterpart, a process referred to as semiconservative replication. Cellular proofreading and error-checking mechanisms ensure near perfect fidelity for DNA replication.

In a cell, DNA replication begins at specific locations, or origins of replication, in the genome. Unwinding of DNA at the origin and synthesis of new strands results in replication forks growing bi-directionally from the origin. A number of proteins are associated with the replication fork to help in the initiation and continuation of DNA synthesis. Most prominently, DNA polymerase synthesizes the new strands by adding nucleotides that complement each (template) strand. DNA replication occurs during the S-stage of interphase. DNA replication can also be performed in vitro (artificially, outside a cell). DNA polymerases isolated from cells and artificial DNA primers can be used to initiate DNA synthesis at known sequences in a template DNA molecule. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a common laboratory technique, cyclically applies such artificial synthesis to amplify a specific target DNA fragment from a pool of DNA. DNA usually exists as a double-stranded structure, with both strands coiled together to form the characteristic double-helix. Each single strand of DNA is a chain of four types of nucleotides. Nucleotides in DNA contain a deoxyribose sugar, a phosphate, and a nucleobase.

The four types of nucleotide correspond to the four nucleobases adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, commonly abbreviated as A,C, G and T. Adenine and guanine are purine bases, while cytosine and thymine are pyrimidines. These nucleotides form phosphodiester bonds, creating the phosphate-deoxyribose backbone of the DNA double helix with the nuclei bases pointing inward (i.e., toward the opposing strand). Nucleotides (bases) are matched between strands through hydrogen bonds to form base pairs. Adenine pairs with thymine (two hydrogen bonds), and guanine pairs with cytosine (stronger: three hydrogen bonds).

DNA strands have a directionality, and the different ends of a single strand are called the “3′ (three-prime) end” and the “5′ (five-prime) end”. By convention, if the base sequence of a single strand of DNA is given, the left end of the sequence is the 5′ end, while the right end of the sequence is the 3′ end. The strands of the double helix are anti-parallel with one being 5′ to 3′, and the opposite strand 3′ to 5′. These terms refer to the carbon atom in deoxyribose to which the next phosphate in the chain attaches. Directionality has consequences in DNA synthesis, because DNA polymerase can synthesize DNA in only one direction by adding nucleotides to the 3′ end of a DNA strand. The pairing of complementary bases in DNA (through hydrogen bonding) means that the information contained within each strand is redundant.

Phosphodiester (intra-strand) bonds are stronger than hydrogen (inter-strand) bonds. This allows the strands to be separated from one another. The nucleotides on a single strand can therefore be used to reconstruct nucleotides on a newly synthesized partner strand. Everything needed to know about DNA structure and its replication.