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DNA, Transcription, and Translation

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Course: Biology (B)
Book: DNA, Transcription, and Translation
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Date: Saturday, April 19, 2014, 4:57 PM

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Lesson Objectives

Lesson Objectives

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Screencast Lecture



Much research in the past fifty years has been focused on understanding the genetic material, DNA. Understanding how DNA works has brought with it many useful technologies. DNA fingerprinting allows police to match a criminal to a crime scene. Transgenic crops, or crops that contain altered DNA, have improved yields for farmers. And you can now test your DNA to find out the chance that your future children may be at risk for a rare genetic disorder. Although we can do some really complicated things with DNA, the chemical structure of DNA is remarkably simple and elegant.



The spiral structure in the picture is a large organic molecule. Can you guess what it is? Here’s a hint: molecules like this one determine who you are. They contain genetic information that controls your characteristics. They determine your eye color, facial features, and other physical attributes. What molecule is it? You probably answered "DNA." Today, it is commonly known that DNA is the genetic material. For a long time, scientists knew such molecules existed. They were aware that genetic information was contained within organic molecules. However, they didn’t know which type of molecules play this role. In fact, for many decades, scientists thought that proteins were the molecules that carry genetic information. In this chapter, you will learn how scientists discovered that DNA carries the code of life.

What is DNA?

DNA, is the material that makes up our chromosomes and stores our genetic information. This genetic information is basically a set of instructions that tell your cells what to do. DNA is an abbreviation for deoxyribonucleic acid. As you may recall, nucleic acids are the class of chemical compounds that store information. The deoxyribo part of the name refers to the name of the sugar that is contained in DNA, deoxyribose.

The chemical composition of DNA is a polymer, or long chain, of nucleotides. Nucleotides are composed of a phosphate group, a 5-carbon sugar, and a nitrogen-containing base. The only difference between each nucleotide is the identity of the base. There are only four possible bases that make up each DNA nucleotide: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytosine (C). The various sequences of these four bases make up the genetic code of your cells. It may seem strange that there are only four letters in the “alphabet” of DNA. But since your chromosomes contain millions of nucleotides, there are many, many different combinations possible with those four letters.

But how do all these pieces fit together? James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for piecing together the structure of DNA. Together with the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, they determined that the structure of DNA is two strands of nucleotides in a double helix (Figure below), or a two-stranded spiral, with the sugar and phosphate groups on the outside, and the paired bases connecting the two strands on the inside of the helix (Figure below).

DNAs three-dimensional structure is a double helix. The hydrogen bonds between the bases at the center of the helix hold the helix together.

The bases do not pair randomly, however. When Erwin Chargaff looked closely at the base content in DNA, he noticed that the percentage of adenine (A) in the DNA always equaled the percentage of thymine (T), and the percentage of guanine (G) always equaled the percentage of cytosine (C). Watson and Crick’s model explained this result by suggesting that A always pairs with T and G always pairs with C in the DNA helix. Therefore A and T, and G and C, are complementary bases. If one DNA strand reads ATGCCAGT, the other strand would be made up the complementary bases: TACGGTCA. These base pairing rules state that in DNA, A always pairs with T, and G always pairs with C.

The chemical structure of DNA includes a chain of nucleotides consisting of a 5-carbon sugar, a phosphate group, and a nitrogen base. Notice how the sugar and phosphate form the backbone of DNA (one strand in blue), with the hydrogen bonds between the bases joining the two strands.

Transcription and Translation


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The process in which cells make proteins is called protein synthesis. It actually consists of two processes: transcription and translation. Transcription takes place in the nucleus. It uses DNA as a template to make an RNA molecule. RNA then leaves the nucleus and goes to a ribosome in the cytoplasm, where translation occurs. Translation reads the genetic code in mRNA and makes a protein.

Central Dogma of Molecular Biology

DNA is found in chromosomes. In eukaryotic cells, chromosomes always remain in the nucleus, but proteins are made at ribosomes in the cytoplasm. How do the instructions in DNA get to the site of protein synthesis outside the nucleus? Another type of nucleic acid is responsible. This nucleic acid is RNA, or ribonucleic acid. RNA is a small molecule that can squeeze through pores in the nuclear membrane. It carries the information from DNA in the nucleus to a ribosome in the cytoplasm and then helps assemble the protein. In short: DNA ? RNA ? Protein
Discovering this sequence of events was a major milestone in molecular biology. It is called the central dogma of molecular biology

DNA Replication

Knowledge of DNA’s structure helped scientists understand how DNA replicates. DNA replication is the process in which DNA is copied. It occurs during the synthesis (S) phase of the eukaryotic cell cycle. DNA replication begins when an enzyme breaks the bonds between complementary bases in DNA. This exposes the bases inside the molecule so they can be “read” by the another enzyme and used to build two new DNA strands with complementary bases. The two daughter molecules that result each contain one strand from the parent molecule and one new strand that is complementary to it. As a result, the two daughter molecules are both identical to the parent molecule.

DNA Replication


DNA alone cannot “tell” your cells how to make proteins. It needs the help of RNA, the other main player in the central dogma of molecular biology. Remember, DNA "lives" in the nucleus, but proteins are made on the ribosomes in the cytoplasm. How does the genetic information get from the nucleus to the cytoplasm? RNA is the answer.

RNA, like DNA, is a nucleic acid. However, RNA differs from DNA in several ways. In addition to being smaller than DNA, RNA also:

Types of RNA

There are three main types of RNA, all of which are involved in making proteins.

Protein Synthesis

Protein Synthesis

The code of DNA, stored in the base sequences, contains the instructions for the order of assembly of amino acids to make proteins. Each strand of DNA has many, many separate sequences that code for the production of a specific protein. These discrete units of DNA that contain code for the creation of one protein are called genes. Proteins are made up of units called amino acids, and the sequence of bases in DNA codes for the specific sequence of amino acids in a protein.

There are about 22,000 genes in every human cell. Does every human cell have the same genes? Yes. Does every human cell use the same genes to make the same proteins? No. In a multicellular organism, such as us, cells have specific functions because they have different proteins, and they have different proteins because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Think of gene expression as if all your genes usually are "turned off." Each cell type only "turns on" (or expresses) the genes that have the code for the proteins it needs to use. So different cell types "turn on" different genes, allowing different proteins to be made, giving different cell types different functions.

However, DNA does not directly coordinate the production of proteins. Remember that DNA is found in the nucleus of the cell, but proteins are made on the ribosomes in the cytoplasm. How do the instructions in the DNA get out to the cytoplasm so that proteins can be made? DNA sends out a message, in the form of RNA (ribonucleic acid), describing how to make the protein. There are three types of RNA directly involved in protein synthesis. Messenger RNA (mRNA) carries the instructions from the nucleus to the cytoplasm. The other two forms of RNA, ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and transfer RNA (tRNA) are involved in the process of ordering the amino acids to make the protein. This process is called translation and will be discussed below. All three RNAs are nucleic acids and are therefore made of nucleotides. The RNA nucleotide is very similar to the DNA nucleotide except for the fact that it contains a different kind of sugar, ribose, and the base uracil (U) replaces the thymine (T) found in DNA.

mRNA is created in a method very similar to DNA synthesis. mRNA is also made up of nucleotide units. The double helix unwinds and the nucleotides follow basically the same base pairing rules to form the correct sequence in the mRNA. This time, however, U pairs with each A in the DNA. In this manner, the genetic code is securely passed on to the mRNA. The process of constructing a mRNA molecule from DNA is known as transcription (Figures below and below).

Each gene (a) contains triplets of bases (b) that are transcribed into RNA (c). Every triplet, or codon, encodes for a unique amino acid.

Base-pairing ensures the accuracy of transcription. Notice how the helix must unwind for transcription to take place.

The mRNA is directly involved in the protein synthesis process and tells the ribosome (Figure below) how to assemble a protein. The base code in the mRNA dictates the order of the amino acids in the protein. But because there are only 4 bases in mRNA and 20 different amino acids, one base cannot directly code for one amino acid. The genetic code in mRNA is read in “words” of three letters (triplets), called codons. For example, GGU encodes for the amino acid glycine, while GUC encodes for valine. This genetic code is universal and used by almost all living things. These codons are read in the ribosome, the organelle responsible for protein synthesis. In the ribosome, tRNA reads the code and brings a specific amino acid to attach to the growing chain of amino acids, which is a protein in the process of being synthesized. Each tRNA carries only one type of amino acid and only recognizes one specific codon. The process of reading the mRNA code in the ribosome to synthesize a protein is called translation (Figure below). There are also three codons, UGA, UAA, and UAG, which indicate that the protein is complete. They do not have an associated amino acid. As no amino acid can be added to the growing polypeptide chain, the protein is complete. The chart in Figure below should be of use in this area of study.

Ribosomes translate RNA into a protein with a specific amino acid sequence. The tRNA binds and brings to the ribosome the amino acid encoded by the mRNA. Ribosomes are made of rRNA and proteins.

This summary of how genes are expressed shows that DNA is transcribed into RNA, which is translated in turn to protein.

This chart shows the genetic code used by all organisms. For example, an RNA codon reading GUU would encode for a valine (Val) according to this chart. Start at the center for the first base of the three base codon, and work your way out. Notice for valine, the second base is a U and the third base of the codon may be either a G, C, A, or U. Similarly, glycine (Gly) is encoded by a GGG, GGA, GGC, and GGU.

The Genetic Code

The Genetic Code

How is the information in a gene encoded? The answer is the genetic code. The genetic code consists of the sequence of nitrogen bases—A, C, G, T (or U)—in a polynucleotide chain. The four bases make up the “letters” of the genetic code. The letters are combined in groups of three to form code “words,” called codons. Each codon stands for (encodes) one amino acid, unless it codes for a start or stop signal. There are 20 common amino acids in proteins. There are 64 possible codons, more than enough to code for the 20 amino acids. The genetic code is shown in the figure below. To see how scientists cracked the genetic code, click here to open a link.

The Genetic Code:

To find the amino acid for a particular codon, find the cell in the table for the first and second bases of the codon. Then, within that cell, find the codon with the correct third base. For example CUG codes for leucine, AAG codes for lysine, and GGG codes for glycine.

Reading the Genetic Code

As shown in the figure above, the codon AUG codes for the amino acid methionine. This codon is also the start codon that begins translation. The start codon establishes the reading frame of mRNA. The reading frame is the way the letters are divided into codons. After the AUG start codon, the next three letters are read as the second codon. The next three letters after that are read as the third codon, and so on. This is illustrated in the figure below. The mRNA molecule is read, codon by codon, until a stop codon is reached. UAG, UGA, and UAA are all stop codons. They do not code for any amino acids.

Reading the Genetic Code:

The genetic code is read three bases at a time. Codons are the code words of the genetic code. Which amino acid does codon 2 in the drawing stand for?

Characteristics of the Genetic Code

The genetic code has a number of important characteristics.

CK-12 Foundation, Biology.


Lesson Summary
CK-12 Foundation, Biology.