Improving science literacy – part 5

It’s all about relationships: DNA, RNA, and proteins

Words like DNA, RNA, and protein are thrown around all the time, but what does it all mean?  What’s the relationship between them?  It’s basic biology that can help everyone understand their own bodies and the biological world around them better.

DNA is essentially a very long chain of repeating units called nucleotides (also called “bases”).  There are only four of them in DNA: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T).  DNA is actually two strands of what are called “complementary bases.”  Essentially, that means the strands are set up like this:

strand 1: AGTCTCAGG
strand 2: TCAGAGTCC

See how the A’s only line up with the T’s, and the C’s with the G’s?  That’s due to how they bond on a molecular level, and that isn’t really important in our discussion.  Just remember that the curvy (C and G) and straight letters (A and T) go together and you’ll be just fine.

RNA is the single-stranded cousin of DNA and is also made up of four nucleotides, except one (thymine) is replaced with another (uracil – U).

Proteins are complex molecules made of a string of subunits called amino acids.  All of the various proteins in your body are made up of only 20 amino acids arranged in varying order and length.

The simplified chain of events goes like this:

transcription                                translation
DNA ————————–> RNA —————————-> protein

Transcription: DNA literally unzips it’s two strands for a short time in order for a complementary strand of RNA to be made.

Translation: Using the RNA as a template, amino acids are lined up and formed into the protein that was originally coded by the DNA.

Here how it looks in all of it textual, non-graphical glory (courtesy of me).

DNA ————————- DNA+RNA —————- Protein made using RNA
AGTCTCAGG ————-> AGTCTCAGG ———————-> PROTEIN!
TCAGAGTCC ————-> UCAGAGUCC ——————–> UCAGAGUCC

Summary: DNA codes for information and uses RNA as a middleman to produce proteins.  Simple, huh?  Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but that’s the gist of it and now you know just enough to be dangerous discussing this among non-biologists at a party.  Gotta be slightly drunk though.

Make sense?  Any questions?  If you do have some be sure to ask because Saturday (I hope) I will expand upon this gift of knowledge and teach you all about the dreaded MUTATIONS.

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