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Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002.

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Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition.

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Chapter 4DNA and Chromosomes

The nucleosome.


The nucleosome. The DNA double helix (gray) is wrapped around a core particle of histone proteins (colored) to create the nucleosome. Nucleosomes are spaced roughly 200 nucleotide pairs apart along the chromosomal DNA. (Reprinted by permission from K. (more...)

Life depends on the ability of cells to store, retrieve, and translate the genetic instructions required to make and maintain a living organism. This hereditary information is passed on from a cell to its daughter cells at cell division, and from one generation of an organism to the next through the organism's reproductive cells. These instructions are stored within every living cell as its genes, the information-containing elements that determine the characteristics of a species as a whole and of the individuals within it.

As soon as genetics emerged as a science at the beginning of the twentieth century, scientists became intrigued by the chemical structure of genes. The information in genes is copied and transmitted from cell to daughter cell millions of times during the life of a multicellular organism, and it survives the process essentially unchanged. What form of molecule could be capable of such accurate and almost unlimited replication and also be able to direct the development of an organism and the daily life of a cell? What kind of instructions does the genetic information contain? How are these instructions physically organized so that the enormous amount of information required for the development and maintenance of even the simplest organism can be contained within the tiny space of a cell?

The answers to some of these questions began to emerge in the 1940s, when researchers discovered, from studies in simple fungi, that genetic information consists primarily of instructions for making proteins. Proteins are the macromolecules that perform most cellular functions: they serve as building blocks for cellular structures and form the enzymes that catalyze all of the cell's chemical reactions (Chapter 3), they regulate gene expression (Chapter 7), and they enable cells to move (Chapter 16) and to communicate with each other (Chapter 15). The properties and functions of a cell are determined almost entirely by the proteins it is able to make. With hindsight, it is hard to imagine what other type of instructions the genetic information could have contained.

The other crucial advance made in the 1940s was the identification of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as the likely carrier of genetic information. But the mechanism whereby the hereditary information is copied for transmission from cell to cell, and how proteins are specified by the instructions in the DNA, remained completely mysterious. Suddenly, in 1953, the mystery was solved when the structure of DNA was determined by James Watson and Francis Crick. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the structure of DNA immediately solved the problem of how the information in this molecule might be copied, or replicated. It also provided the first clues as to how a molecule of DNA might encode the instructions for making proteins. Today, the fact that DNA is the genetic material is so fundamental to biological thought that it is difficult to realize what an enormous intellectual gap this discovery filled.

Well before biologists understood the structure of DNA, they had recognized that genes are carried on chromosomes, which were discovered in the nineteenth century as threadlike structures in the nucleus of a eucaryotic cell that become visible as the cell begins to divide (Figure 4-1). Later, as biochemical analysis became possible, chromosomes were found to consist of both DNA and protein. We now know that the DNA carries the hereditary information of the cell (Figure 4-2). In contrast, the protein components of chromosomes function largely to package and control the enormously long DNA molecules so that they fit inside cells and can easily be accessed by them.

Figure 4-1. Chromosomes in cells.

Figure 4-1

Chromosomes in cells. (A) Two adjacent plant cells photographed through a light microscope. The DNA has been stained with a fluorescent dye (DAPI) that binds to it. The DNA is present in chromosomes, which become visible as distinct structures in the (more...)

Figure 4-2. Experimental demonstration that DNA is the genetic material.

Figure 4-2

Experimental demonstration that DNA is the genetic material. These experiments, carried out in the 1940s, showed that adding purified DNA to a bacterium changed its properties and that this change was faithfully passed on to subsequent generations. Two (more...)

In this chapter we begin by describing the structure of DNA. We see how, despite its chemical simplicity, the structure and chemical properties of DNA make it ideally suited as the raw material of genes. The genes of every cell on Earth are made of DNA, and insights into the relationship between DNA and genes have come from experiments in a wide variety of organisms. We then consider how genes and other important segments of DNA are arranged on the long molecules of DNA that are present in chromosomes. Finally, we discuss how eucaryotic cells fold these long DNA molecules into compact chromosomes. This packing has to be done in an orderly fashion so that the chromosomes can be replicated and apportioned correctly between the two daughter cells at each cell division. It must also allow access of chromosomal DNA to enzymes that repair it when it is damaged and to the specialized proteins that direct the expression of its many genes.

This is the first of four chapters that deal with basic genetic mechanisms—the ways in which the cell maintains, replicates, expresses, and occasionally improves the genetic information carried in its DNA. In the following chapter (Chapter 5) we discuss the mechanisms by which the cell accurately replicates and repairs DNA; we also describe how DNA sequences can be rearranged through the process of genetic recombination. Gene expression—the process through which the information encoded in DNA is interpreted by the cell to guide the synthesis of proteins—is the main topic of Chapter 6. In Chapter 7, we describe how gene expression is controlled by the cell to ensure that each of the many thousands of proteins encrypted in its DNA is manufactured only at the proper time and place in the life of the cell. Following these four chapters on basic genetic mechanisms, we present an account of the experimental techniques used to study these and other processes that are fundamental to all cells (Chapter 8).


The Structure and Function of DNA

Chromosomal DNA and Its Packaging in the Chromatin Fiber

The Global Structure of Chromosomes


By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2002, Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and Peter Walter; Copyright © 1983, 1989, 1994, Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and James D. Watson .
Bookshelf ID: NBK21074


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