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DNA, An Introduction

Introduction:

DNA Structure
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).

The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.

DNA bases pair up with each other, A with T and C with G, to form units called base pairs. Each base is also attached to a sugar molecule and a phosphate molecule. Together, a base, sugar, and phosphate are called a nucleotide. Nucleotides are arranged in two long strands that form a spiral called a double helix. The structure of the double helix is somewhat like a ladder, with the base pairs forming the ladder’s rungs and the sugar and phosphate molecules forming the vertical sidepieces of the ladder.

An important property of DNA is that it can replicate, or make copies of itself. Each strand of DNA in the double helix can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases. This is critical when cells divide because each new cell needs to have an exact copy of the DNA present in the old cell.

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Traits are carried in DNA as instructions for constructing and operating an organism. These instructions are contained in segments of DNA called genes. DNA is made of a sequence of simple units, with the order of these units spelling out instructions in the genetic code. This is similar to the orders of letters spelling out words. The organism "reads" the sequence of these units and decodes the instruction. Not all the genes for a particular instruction are exactly the same. Different forms of one type of gene are called different alleles of that gene. As an example, one allele of a gene for hair color could carry the instruction to produce a lot of the pigment in black hair, while a different allele could give a garbled version of this instruction, so that no pigment is produced and the hair is white. Mutations are either random or induced events that alter the sequence of a gene and can produce new or different traits. There are some exceptions to this, which will be discussed later. A new trait could be turning an allele for black hair into an allele for white hair.The appearance of new traits is important in evolution.
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