DNA Structure

DNA is a macro molecule that consists of many subunits connected together. The subunits are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide has three parts: a sugar, a phosphate, and a base. The sugar and phosphate molecules are linked together in two long chains. The bases are linked to the sugar-phosphates. Bases of one strand are bound to those of the other strand by hydrogen bonds making what is called a base pair. The structure of DNA is a double helix which allows it to perform the functions of replication and information storage. Base pairs look similar to rungs on a ladder. In fact, the DNA structure could be described as a long ladder twisted into a spiral.

DNA has a double helix structurecomposed of nucleotides (Image by P. Hain)


There are only 4 nucleotides in DNA, Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Thymine (T), and Cystosine (C). The chemical structures of Thymine and Cytosine are smaller, while those of Adenine and Guanine are larger. Size and structure of the specific nucleotides cause Adenine and Thymine to always pair together while Cytosine and Guanine always pair together. Therefore the two strands of DNA are considered complimentary.

Adenine structure
Thymine structure
Guanine structure
Cytosine structure

                  The four nucleotide structures. (Images by P. Hain and University of Nebraska - Lincoln)

Adenine and thymine interaction
Cystine and guanine interaction

Adenine-thymine and cystine-guanine interactions  (Images by University of Nebraska - Lincoln)

The nucleotides are like letters in the ’genetic language’. Just as we use letters to make words with meaning, the order of the nucleotides on a DNA strand codes information. They make ’words’ that tell the cell how to make each protein. Furthermore, the genetic language is a universal language. Every living organism uses the same nucleotide combinations to code for its genetic information. This characteristic is important in genetic engineering. It allows the transfer of genetic information from one species to another while maintaining its meaning.

*This animation has no audio.*