4. Structure of DNA

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will begin to: Discuss and apply biological theories and concepts of the molecular and genetic of life, including cell division, inheritance, and gene regulation by showing that you can:

  • Describe the structure of DNA.

DNA is the genetic material passed from parent to offspring for all life on Earth. The three letters “DNA” have now become associated with crime solving, paternity testing, human identification, and genetic testing. DNA can be retrieved from hair, blood, or saliva. With the exception of identical twins, each person’s DNA is unique and it is possible to detect differences between human beings on the basis of their unique DNA sequence.

DNA analysis has many practical applications beyond forensics and paternity testing. DNA testing is used for tracing genealogy and identifying pathogens. In the medical field, DNA is used in diagnostics, new vaccine development, and cancer therapy. It is now possible to determine predisposition to many diseases by analyzing genes.

In the 1950s, Francis Crick and James Watson worked together at the University of Cambridge, England, to determine the structure of DNA. Other scientists, such as Linus Pauling and Maurice Wilkins, were also actively exploring this field. Pauling had discovered the secondary structure of proteins using X-ray crystallography. X-ray crystallography is a method for investigating molecular structure by observing the patterns formed by X-rays shot through a crystal of the substance. The patterns give important information about the structure of the molecule of interest. In Wilkins’ lab, researcher Rosalind Franklin was using X-ray crystallography to understand the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick were able to piece together the puzzle of the DNA molecule using Franklin’s data (Figure 9.2). Watson and Crick also had key pieces of information available from other researchers such as Chargaff’s rules. Chargaff had shown that of the four kinds of monomers (nucleotides) present in a DNA molecule, two types were always present in equal amounts and the remaining two types were also always present in equal amounts. This meant they were always paired in some way. In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work in determining the structure of DNA.


Watson and Crick with Photo 51
Figure 1: Pioneering scientists (a) James Watson and Francis Crick are pictured here with American geneticist Maclyn McCarty. Scientist Rosalind Franklin discovered (b) the X-ray diffraction pattern of DNA, which helped to elucidate its double helix structure. (credit a: modification of work by Marjorie McCarty; b: modification of work by NIH)


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OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016 http://cnx.org/contents/s8Hh0oOc@9.10:8v2Xzdco@5/The-Structure-of-DNA


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Mt Hood Community College Biology 102 by Lisa Bartee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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