Two Single Strands of DNA Combine to Form a Double Helix
Most DNA molecules consist of not one but two strands (Figure 1.2). How are these strands positioned with respect to one another? In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the arrangement of these strands and proposed a threedimensional structure for DNA molecules. This structure is a double helix composed of two intertwined strands arranged such that the sugar-phosphate backbone lies on the outside and the bases on the inside. The key to this structure is that the bases form specific base pairs (bp) held together by hydrogen bonds (Section 1.3.1): adenine pairs with thymine (AT) and guanine pairs with cytosine (G-C), as shown in Figure 1.3. Hydrogen bonds are much weaker than covalent bonds such as the carbon-carbon or carbon-nitrogen bonds that define the structures of the bases themselves. Such weak bonds are crucial to biochemical systems; they are weak enough to be reversibly broken in biochemical processes, yet they are strong enough, when many form simultaneously, to help stabilize specific structures such as the double helix. The structure proposed by Watson and Crick has two properties of central importance to the role of DNA as the hereditary material. First, the structure is compatible with any sequence of bases. The base pairs have essentially the same shape (Figure 1.4) and thus fit equally well into the center of the double-helical structure. Second, because of basepairing, the sequence of bases along one strand completely determines the sequence along the other strand. As Watson and Crick so coyly wrote: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." Thus, if the DNA double helix is separated into two single strands, each strand can act as a template for the generation of its partner strand through specific base-pair formation (Figure 1.5). The three-dimensional structure of DNA beautifully illustrates the close connection between molecular form and function.
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